Ohio
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Ohio

Stephen Markley

Since the turn of the century, a generation has come of age knowing only war, recession, political gridlock, racial hostility, and a simmering fear of environmental calamity. In the country’s forgotten pockets, where industry long ago fled, where foreclosures, Walmarts, and opiates riddle the land, death rates for rural whites have skyrocketed, fueled by suicide, addiction and a rampant sense of marginalization and disillusionment.

This is the world the characters in Stephen Markley’s brilliant debut novel, Ohio, inherit. This is New Canaan. On one fateful summer night in 2013, four former classmates converge on the rust belt town where they grew up, each of them with a mission, all of them haunted by regrets, secrets, lost loves. There’s Bill Ashcraft, an alcoholic, drug-abusing activist, whose fruitless ambitions have taken him from Cambodia to Zuccotti Park to New Orleans, and now back to The Cane with a mysterious package strapped to the underside of his truck; Stacey Moore, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting the mother of her former lover; Dan Eaton, a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried to forget; and the beautiful, fragile Tina Ross, whose rendezvous with the captain of the football team triggers the novel’s shocking climax.

At once a murder mystery and a social critique, Ohio ingeniously captures the fractured zeitgeist of a nation through the viewfinder of an embattled Midwestern town and offers a prescient vision for America at the dawn of a turbulent new age.

Review

In the post-9/11 era, foreign wars, financial meltdowns, diminishing opportunities, and increasing alienation have shaped the United States of America. A generation of young people have come of age in the shadow of the collapse of the Twin Towers – their lives defined by continuing crises; by multiple national tragedies that have triggered significant personal aftershocks.

In Stephen Markley’s bold debut novel, Ohio, characters carry the scars that come with living in this state of near-permanent post-traumatic stress. Framed predominantly around one night in the summer of 2013, Ohio narrates the fateful return of four ex-classmates to their hometown in the northeast of the state that gives the novel its name. Now in their late twenties, Bill Ashcraft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton, and Tina Ross converge on the fictional town of New Canaan – far from the biblical Promised Land implied by this name – seeking some form of redemption and resolution for their pain. Markley flashes back to their high-school years, to their various entanglements, and to that ‘defining time’ when 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq drew a line through the heartland and through their lives.

Across its 400-plus pages, Ohio takes in social activism, sexual assault, the scourge of methamphetamines, and the wounds of war to paint a portrait of life in America now. But Markley’s isn’t a clinical dissection. He writes with a fervent, emotional tone that places human lives at the centre of this national breakdown. Markley takes risks, and I admire them, even if they don’t all quite pay off. Sometimes characters function too much like broad mouthpieces for big ideas; sometimes events are pushed to the extreme. But Ohio is an ambitious novel grappling quite intimately with problems that have no simple solutions. It’s also a vital reminder that in times of crisis, fiction doesn’t need to offer us all the answers, but should ask questions that shine a light in the darkness.


Joanna Di Mattia works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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