Ohio, the debut novel from author Stephen Markley, begins with a parade, but it’s not a happy one. The town of New Canaan has gathered to salute Rick Brinklan, a native of the city who was killed in action in Iraq. The novel then jumps in time to 2013, six years after that parade: “It’s hard to say where any of this ends or how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear,” Markley writes. “There is only this wild … flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died.”
Ohio, though, is more of a nightmare than a dream. Markley’s debut is a sprawling, beautiful novel that explores the aftermath of the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a powerful look at the tenuous bonds that hold people together at their best and at their worst.
Markley follows four characters, all of whom knew one another as high school students in the fictional city of New Canaan. The first is Bill Ashcraft, who returns to his hometown on a mysterious errand; he’s agreed to deliver a package from Louisiana to Ohio, although he doesn’t know what it contains. While in town, he happens upon some old classmates, with whom he feels a particular affinity: “Once handsome, marbled, small-town athletes who couldn’t understand why they hadn’t conquered the world.” Bill was an always an odd fit in his high school: a popular jock who embraced left-wing politics with a fervor that annoyed his friends.
The second character is Stacey Moore, a graduate student who’s come to New Canaan to meet with the mother of her ex-lover, a mercurial student named Lisa Han, who’s been out of contact with her friends for years. Stacey isn’t thrilled to come back to her hometown; it reminds her of her youthful awkwardness: “That’s how teenagedness works: everyone lives in a bubble of their own terrifying insecurities oblivious to the possibility that so does everyone else.”
Markley then turns to Dan Eaton, a soldier who lost an eye in Iraq, who comes back to visit his parents and his ex-girlfriend. Dan was always on the edge of the in-crowd in high school, brainy but athletic, and he has mixed feelings about running into his old friends. He complains to one about “how this town sucks you in. Keeps you doped on its own mythology.”
Finally, there’s Tina Ross, whose life has been marked by tragedy. She was abused by her high school boyfriend, a cruel linebacker named Todd Beaufort; after years of struggling with an eating disorder and self-mutilation, she’s come back to town to confront him. She knows she’s not the only one of her cohort haunted by old ghosts, unable to explain to her current boyfriend “the sadness somehow born in their high school days that could reach out and touch any of them at random.”
The four acquaintances all return to New Canaan on the same night, but for very different reasons, and none of their homecomings go exactly as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.
Markley intersperses the stories of the four Ohioans with flashbacks to high school, and his portrayals are horrifyingly accurate. He does a perfect job examining the casual cruelties teenagers inflict on one another, and how those cruelties never really end, but perpetuate themselves well into adulthood.
There’s a lot going on in Ohio — a sprawling cast of main and supporting characters, and a series of interconnected events that doesn’t come together until the book’s shocking conclusion. But Markley handles it beautifully; the novel is intricately constructed, with gorgeous, fiery writing that pulls the reader in and never lets go. It’s obvious that Markley cares deeply about his characters, even the unsympathetic ones — he treats them with respect, never writing condescendingly about these people whose lives have been battered and bruised by circumstances they don’t quite understand.
It may sound like an odd thing to say for a book that’s so unflinching in its look at violence, but Markley’s novel is, in the end, about love — how it can unite and divide, sustain and destroy. “Love was what God gave you to make you both unbearably strong and intolerably weak,” he writes. “Love was the ghost of yourself, a mirror image you saw in a crowd — different life, different ideals, different map of the world — but somehow still you.” Written with a real love for its characters, Ohio isn’t just a remarkable debut novel, it’s a wild, angry and devastating masterpiece of a book.