This dumbfounding moment in national history brings for many the sensation of being stuck in a political remake of “Groundhog Day,” each morning renewing the same confusion: How did we get to this destructively divided place?
“Ohio” is Stephen Markley’s answer. A prehistory of now, Markley’s bruising novel chronicles a decade in which those in the sinking parts of our nation began looking for anyone to blame and anything to relieve the pain of loss. “Out here on the edges of the fracturing economy,” he writes, “people muled mysterious packages back and forth across the scorched American landscape.” In the Midwest, everyone’s getting evicted or dying of overdoses. The only people who succeed are cooking up scams or meth.
Markley nominates 9/11 as the departure for the present and the lightly fictionalized northeast Ohio burg of New Canaan as the emblematic locus of the nation’s crackup. The novel opens in 2007 with a funeral parade (or “jingoistic spectacle,” according to a dissenter) for local football star Rick Brinklan, dispatched from a life of broken promise in Iraq. In truth, every one of this socially representative cast of characters is broken; the only variety is by what. There’s the Great Recession, the flight of manufacturing, the ravages of addiction, sexual violence — the full smorgasbord of American tragedy. As throughout the plot generally, the opening scene is pregnant with symbolism: The hero’s casket is empty. The real funeral occurred months before, and the shiny box is due back at Walmart.
Four main and several secondary characters appear in flashbacks and flash-forwards from the heady years of high school. Each is shadowed by revelations of their damaged state 10 years on. All return to their hometown bowed under the dead weight of secrets. Naturally, all will eventually collide in a Shattering Conclusion, but that is less interesting than what brings them there.
Two left Ohio for the wars that resulted from 9/11: the steadfastly right-wing Brinklan, and Dan Eaton, who in coming home alive might be considered to have fared better than his classmate, but he does have a glass eye and the invisible injuries visited on every warrior made to bear the unbearable. Another left in search of social justice and mind-altering substances. A promising songwriter, whose lyrics form one of several nostalgic leitmotifs, might have made a full getaway but for heroin. Three women are variously wounded by the cruelties of their era and their cohort, but one nonetheless escapes to academe; she has a line from Yeats tattooed on her arm and a dissertation titled “Transnational Ecological Catastrophe in the Context of the Global Novel.”
The diverse trajectories of these young people provide the author an arsenal of cultural signifiers with which to mine his fictional landscape, as well as the opportunity to expound on contemporary politics, religion, sex, drugs, literature, music and much else. This is novel as compendium.
A yearning for youth and the places in which it flamed is the source of the book’s most honest lyricism. Ohio represents prison and paradise both, its beauty insidious: “Stars and moon all swimming out there in the infinite. It made him think that if he could stretch his vision far enough, he could see to the end of it all, where the universe simply trickled back to God’s eye.” And so the novel’s secondary subject is its most persuasive: the persistence, and modifications, of memory.
But for all its genuinely absorbing qualities, “Ohio” retains a whiff of calculation. Its author is ambitious (his first effort, in 2010, was a high-concept memoir titled “Publish This Book”), and the determination to create an explosive powerhouse of a book emanates from every page here. Markley can’t resist using his characters as mouthpieces, as if to embody the current sense that America has degenerated into a nation of warring ideologies. They offer expositions on a welter of hypocrisies. His female protagonists sound well vetted by a sensitivity reader: They come out both ahead (in intellect and maturity) and behind (in complex perversity and morbid trauma) the men, who seethe with bequeathed anger. Theirs are legacy mistakes.
Novels that simultaneously attempt to explicate political history and plumb the human condition are liable to succeed at neither, but Stephen Markley’s exuberant embrace of such risk is laudable in itself. “Ohio” burns with alienation, nihilism, frustration and finally love for a place that gave birth to all of them. As the native-born can attest, that goes for the state of Ohio, too.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of “The Place You Love Is Gone,” among other books.
By Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster. 496 pp. $27