Ohio by Stephen Markley is the story of a Rust Belt town and the people who live in it. Markley is the author of the memoir Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book and the travelogue Tales of Iceland.
Growing up and living in Cleveland, I remember the tail end of the 1960s, 1970s, and the early 1980s, before leaving for the Marines. I can recall the culture and impending doom that Ohio brings out. The industry-based economy had been stumbling for quite some time with several false starts towards recovery. My parents moved to the suburbs in the 1980s which seemed nice, basically major crime free, nice schools, park, and library. Today the opiates have replaced marijuana. Unemployment leaves a chronic shadow on the community.
I was drawn to the book not only by name and location, Northeast Ohio but also by the cover. I try not to be drawn in by the book covers but this one took me back. Although the convenient store on the cover displays the colors of the 7/11 chain, I was reminded of the Lawson’s store at the corner of my street. There were quite a lot of memories tied to the store from drinking Coke on the loading dock, buying lunch food at the deli, and playing pinball inside the store.
The writing in this novel is superb. There is a great effort in the setting and the characters that creates depth to the story moving it from just a novel into literature:
A vortex of blue light spilled across the pavement, the streets, the downtown buildings, swirling violet violence and a piercing hiss as the oxygen was sucked into another dimension. It flew backwards into the hot cerulean spiral, gazing mad black eyes, and when it passed over the edge of existence, the puncture in the universe wheezed painfully and then zipped up like a wound stitching itself shut.
Like the cover shot in the night, most of the book seems to take place in a darkness. The image of an eternal night is filled with things that are not seen by all or even most people. Night hides a variety of ills which the book slowly reveals.
The city itself is New Canaan which plays on Biblical Canaan. The Biblical Canaan was the promised land of the Israelites — the land of milk and honey. New Canaan, however, is the land of broken dreams and anguish. Glory Days have turned to drugs, drinking, and self-mutilation. Industry has left, the real estate market never recovered, homes are foreclosed, a few bars and a local restaurant is all that seems to remain.
The economic disaster that has come to define the region is brought out through the characters lives, four of which have come back to the city for various reasons. Bill Ashcraft an activist and outspoken anti-war crusader, whose life has become a blur of alcohol and drugs, comes back as a courier for former classmate Kaylyn. Stacey Moore a Ph.D. candidate in English returns to meet with the mother of her high school lover. Dan Eaton a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and balances his need to escape New Canaan and the girl he left behind. Tina Ross the daughter of a minister struggles with popularity and her beliefs. Also having a major role in the story, but only through flashbacks, are the football hero and Marine Corporal Rick Brinkland whose funeral opens the book. Lisa Han, half Vietnamese, raised by a single caucasian mother plays a central role connecting the other characters together. She remains a bit of the mystery as no one has seen her since high school but some have received emails and postcards.
The story introduces separate threads that weave together into a complete story. Each bit of information revealed in the story is tied together wonderfully by the end of the novel. Markley manages to introduce almost every key issue of that generation into the novel without forcing any issue into the story. Crime, drugs, terrorism, war, anti-war, sexuality, murder, sex, abuse both physical and emotional, are all pieces that complete the picture. Revealing the sins of the past brings little cheer to the reader. Instead, the reader will be rewarded with a dark story that is played over and over in may Rust Belt cities. Those who live or lived there know it well and others will be introduced to the American nightmare. Fiction mimics real life in Ohio.
Available: August 21st 2018