Markley's Ohio Explains American Despair

OHIO (August 2018)
Stephen Markley
Simon and Schuster, 496 pages.

One of my college students recently said to me, “I hear people use the phrase ‘since 9/11’ a lot, but I don’t really know what that means.” If that shocks you, consider that she was two when the towers fell; the only reality she has ever known is the post-9/11 world. I must tell her to read Stephen Markley’s new novel, Ohio. And so should the rest of you—especially if you’re still trying to figure out why Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

The question of when America began to lose its innocence rages from the halls of academia to backroom bar booths. Was it the JFK assassination, Vietnam, urban race riots, Watergate, the energy crisis, or something else? However it began, 9/11 was the tipping point in which the assumption of American invincibility toppled from its pedestal to be replaced by bleak narratives of decline, division, and deficiency—the City on the Hill transformed into Babylon on the cusp of the fall. Consider, for example, that no one challenged the very premise of Trump's “Make American Great Again” slogan. Remember when Jimmy Carter was excoriated for suggesting that the American Dream was in jeopardy?

Excuse the digression, but you need to consider these bigger questions to appreciate the chilling power of Stephen Markley’s Ohio. It opens with a funeral: that of Rick Brinklan, who was killed in Iraq. As some townspeople spout the usual fallen hero nostrums, his best friend from high school, Bill Ashcraft, prefers to blister his brain with drugs and booze rather than take part in the charade; he sees Rick’s death as senseless. Markley takes us inside the generation that came of age of age with 9/11—high schoolers in an already-depressed town faced with individual searches for identity and meaning. Rick became a knee-jerk patriot; Bill became an anarchist jerk. Yet they both hated the same things; both railed against their impotency within a chaotic and faith-challenged universe.

Markley takes us back and forth between 2003 and 2011, the latter date one in which four high school acquaintances pass through their hometown of New Canaan, Ohio: the cynical Ashcraft; soft-spoken Dan Eaton, who lost an eye in Afghanistan; Stacey Moore, a doctoral student; and Tina Ross, a beautiful woman with deep hurts and secrets. There is no such town as New Canaan, but Markley situates it in Northeast Ohio; that is, near rusted out cities such as Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. It’s also where you’ll find Kent State University. Cue Neil Young and a lot of unpleasant history. Markley’s New Canaan is akin to Richard Russo’s Mohawk on steroids. Or maybe I should say crystal meth. The very existence of towns such as these—of which there are myriad examples—calls into question the nation’s future. New Canaan is a place where factory workers have given way to Walmart greeters and convenience store clerks, the fate of the high school football team is a diversionary passion, and vultures circle to prey on the desperate: real estate speculators, home equity loan sharks, drug peddlers, military recruiters, right-wing hate groups, evangelists….

Markley divides his book into four sections: “Bill Ashcraft and the Great American Thing,” “Stacey Moore and a Theory of Ecology, Literature, and Love Across Deep Time,” “Dan Eaton and the Murder That Never Was,” and “Tina Ross and the Cool at the Edge of the Woods.” Each section unspools personal narratives, but also spotlights changes in New Canaan since 9/11. Ashcraft is the one who wanted to get away, but only partially did so; he has seen much of the world, is deeply alienated, and now lives underground, though he carries with him New Canaan’s narcotic haze, alcoholic stupefaction, and hopelessness. Moore, an out lesbian and literature scholar, is the one closest to escaping New Canaan, though she has never forgiven the hypocrisy of New Canaan Christians—the ones who quote Jesus in one moment and pop pills and sleep around the next. Dan Eaton is the quiet vet still pining for the girlfriend he gave up to serve three military tours. Call him a semi-tragic figure—a guy who wants to be decent and kind but isn’t sure what those words mean anymore. Ross is darker—outwardly beautiful, but her body scarred from self-inflicted cuts. She is also the key to unmasking New Canaan’s monsters.     

Markley is masterful at character development—not just their actions, but also their internal thoughts, dreams, and nightmares. This makes the book work, as his is a large cast—not just the four central figures, but also pivotal dramatis personae such as the vivacious, wild, and sometimes vulgar Lisa Han; Eaton’s ex-girlfriend Hailey, whose life is as compromised as his; Cole, Tina’s salt-of-the-earth but dull-as-dishwater husband; and Kaylyn, the slutty but outwardly goody-two shoes Christian girl who is nothing but trouble. There is also Ben Harrington, the sensitive musician who dies young; and a bunch of ex-football players, a few of whom have turned dangerous.

That’s a lot and it’s to Markley’s credit that he makes his characters live—even the ones who are dead. He also embeds a mystery within what is essentially a tragedy. Ohio is a tough book and a slow read, but it’s also one of the most honest works on post-9/11 America I have yet to encounter. You feel despair, desperation, and flickering hope on every page. If this sounds depressing, it is at times, but if you want to understand the mindset of those who turn to opioids, bigotry, misanthropy, and charlatans, Ohio is the ticket. Some early reviewers have given up on Ohio and more’s the pity; Markley makes it clear that self-anesthetizing doesn’t work, a list that includes head-in-the-sand ignorance.
Rob Weir

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