I had a really hard time getting into this book, and I’m not sure if it had more to do with my current state of mind (extreme stress and borderline depression #2020sucks) or with the long, rambling sentences which alternate between extreme highbrow and earthy lowbrow (perhaps in imitation of the young adults who are its main characters). My general feelings about the book alternate as well: in some ways it definitely hits the mark for this challenge, and in other ways it perpetuates many stereotypes.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are returning to Ohio after a hiatus of… most of 2020.

Ohio by Stephen Markley is amazing for its vibrant characters, who are mostly members of the high school classes of 2003 and 2004 from New Canaan, Ohio, a fictional town located a couple of hours from the capitol of Columbus. New Canaan is a mid-sized town hit hard by mill closures, then hit again by the Great Recession of the late ’00s, and plagued by meth and then opioids (as well as by sexual assault and alcoholism). We learn the story in pieces, through the point of view of the main characters in turn, who converge on the town some ten years after graduation and show us their interconnected stories through flashbacks.

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.

Publisher’s book blurb from Goodreads

Before we go any further, I should say that this may be a very difficult book to read for anyone who has experienced sexual assault or similar. It may also be triggering for scenes related to cutting and attempted suicide, combat (particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan), and there is a LOT of drug abuse and alcoholism.

Ostensibly, the book is a mystery–there are several mysterious threads running through the entire narrative that are only wrapped up in the last 40 or 50 pages–but it reads more like a character-driven social commentary. There are hints throughout the book as we learn more from each of the main perspectives, and I have to say I wasn’t terribly surprised by any of the big revelations.

I’d be very interested in what millenials make of the book, since the majority of the characters are from that generation, and a lot of it has to do with the bleakness they’ve faced as they’ve come of age in the shadow of 9-11, as noted in the quote above. However, I found myself continually having to remind myself of the timeframe of the book as I read–which makes me think that the situations are much more universal than we’d like to admit.

As several reviewers on Goodreads noted, the location is also much more universal than the title of the book might lead us to believe. It certainly seems like many other towns across the entire Rust Belt, but I read reviews from Texas and other states as well, saying the same–that the setting evoked their own hometowns. We saw similar bleakness in Kansas, and in North Carolina.

Markley, in some ways, seems to have gone out of his way to present characters who are real people, with a variety of interests and talents–these are three-dimensional characters with a mix of good and bad. Even the “villain” of the piece is shown to have a soft spot for dogs, rescuing them from the local shelter, and intending to use his fame and fortune (when it arrives) to fund no-kill shelters and find homes for the dogs who wind up there; and the veteran feels guilt and remorse over his actions during his last tour, which had unintended consequences. The attention to detail helps make these characters so much more than stereotypes.

In other ways, though, Markley goes all-in on the stereotypes–the concussed, violent jock; the sexual exploits of the football team; the political beliefs of many of the townspeople, including the militia-like compound. Overall, though, I think he did a pretty good job of avoiding straight stereotypes, at least with the main characters.

The changing point of view and the way we see inside each character’s thoughts works to negate any remaining “dumb hick” stereotype we might be clinging to, as several of the characters are highly intelligent and prolific and varied readers, and even minor characters show unexpected depth (like the poetry-quoting waitress). The philosophical meanderings give a lot of depth to the characters, and greater meaning to their lives and stories, but at times there was just too much–I was reminded of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which can be (and used to be) edited down from 1400 pages to about 400 pages of actual story. This isn’t quite that bad, but it definitely could have used some trimming.

There are a number of references to books the various characters have read, including James Lovelock’s eco-classic Gaia, which leads Stacey to her dissertation topic, and recurring references to Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes comic strips. (Apparently, Bill Watterson grew up in Ohio.) But one random reference I came across threw me for a moment because it was so prominent, unexpected, and, I suspect, unfamiliar to many readers:

Maybe [the bar], from which she’d yet to escape that night, was a kind of supra-reality, an illusory space where so many of the spokes of her life crossed, her own Tel’aran’rhiod imbued with nostalgia, time, and interconnection.

Stephen Markley, in Ohio

Tel’aran’rhiod is the name of a dream world in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The Wheel of Time series was an epic fantasy series which spanned 14 books (and a prequel released somewhere in the middle) and was published between 1990 and 2013. Robert Jordan died in 2007, and the last three books were written by Brandon Sanderson using Jordan’s notes.

It had an incredibly detailed world, with a large number of different cultures and belief systems, an interesting and unique magical system, and a dream world–Tel’aran’rhiod–that acted as a sort of crossroads between prophecy, magic, and reality, where those with a talent in dreaming meet, both intentionally and unexpectedly.

So the reference above works very well, and has the bonus of referring to the “spokes” of her life. The character in question is working on a doctorate in literature, and the snippet takes place in 2013, when the long-awaited final book was released. Except, I suspect the reference was lost on many readers, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t recognize it (you can sort of figure it out from context, but the word itself is nonsensical). In the end, a reference from Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings would have been more universal and also fit the timeframe.

Overall, this was an extremely thought-provoking book. Many books these days have a “Book Club” guide at the end with questions meant to inspire discussion. Usually I find those questions fall flat–either the questions are uninteresting or the answers are obvious. The questions at the end of Ohio by Stephen Markley are wonderful.

Hilde tells Stacey that she often makes “self-denigrating comments” towards her “bumblefuck town,’” and advises her to “break yourself of that habit. You’re here. You’re curious about the world” (192). How are Stacey and the other characters in the novel who do leave New Canaan—Bill, Dan, Rick, Ben—still bound to their hometown even as they explore the world? In what ways do they remain distinctly “Ohio”?

Backmatter from Ohio by Stephen Markley

The conflict between those who leave and those who stay is one that came up in Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, but Russo’s “leavers” did so because they were forced to, whereas Markley’s characters mostly dream of escaping (as we’ve seen in other books). But oftentimes in books where the characters all dream of escaping, those who leave are, by and large, successful, while those who stay are trapped in mediocrity. In Markley’s book, hardly anyone succeeds–leavers or stayers. Our upcoming Morrison book, Sula, will deal with this topic as well.

Which brings us to another thought-provoking reader’s question:

“Clichéd inspirational posters making success sound as if it had nothing to do with socioeconomics” (53). How do the characters in Ohio define success? How do their circumstances inhibit or encourage their individual definitions? Do you feel any of the characters might have been doomed from the beginning by their circumstances, or do you feel they sabotaged themselves?

Backmatter in Ohio by Stephen Markley

The question of self-sabotage seems most applicable to Bill Ashcraft, the drifter and pothead, and, perhaps to Kaylyn, who, at times, seems to thrive off of the adrenaline of the possibility of being caught or refused. In some ways Todd could be seen as self-sabotaging or, perhaps, as doomed: the only talent he’s really able to leverage is his football skills, but the concussions are at least partially responsible for his not making it to the big success he’s dreaming of. Do they also lead to other self-destructive behaviors? Or are those behaviors part of his innate character?

In terms of success and socioeconomics, I’m minded of a quote I highlighted from Stacey’s section because I disagreed with it:

In a factory and farming community like New Canaan, it was kids like Jonah who tended to command high social status, the “preps” as they were all called, and when you’re a teenager and have never read Marx, you just think in this tautology: “These are the popular people because they’re popular.” Only in hindsight do you understand you could probably correlate the cliques of high school directly to each family’s bank account.

Stephen Markley in Ohio

I grew up in a small town where the main employer was (and still is) a forklift factory, and which is surrounded by small farms. I was also one of the people on the middle-to-lower rungs of the social ladder–by virtue of my father working at the factory; the farm kids were on the lowest rungs. And those of us on those lower rungs were very much aware of why we were not as popular, without ever having read Marx–it was laid out very bluntly for us every time we were harassed for wearing homemade or hand-me-down clothing, or ate a free breakfast in the cafeteria. For me, personally, that was my motivation for doing well in school–wanting to escape, both the town and that rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

The last reader’s question I want to address is this one:

“If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, in the third act, it must be fired”—a “Chekhov’s gun” is a literary principle that advises writers to make sure every element in their stories comes into play at some point. Discuss how author Stephen Markley makes use of this principle. What would be the “Chekov’s guns,” so to speak, in Ohio?

Backmatter from Ohio by Stephen Markley

Some books leave lots of plot points hanging and many questions unanswered. Markley really tries to wrap everything up–the package, the locket, the Miracle/Magical slip-up, Rudy’s wound, along with many others. I can’t think of any, “But what happened with the thing?” moments or questions left over. Generally, I like to have those questions answered, but occasionally a little mystery is nice. (Although, remember Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods from Minnesota? Where we never find out what happened to the wife? Whether or not she was murdered or escaped or drowned by accident or suicide?! That was a little too much mystery!)

Overall, as I mentioned in my post on Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, I’m feeling pretty bleak about Ohio. I’m really, really glad I added Ohio by Stephen Markley to the list, as I think it gave us a lot of valuable insights. I’m just not sure a) how specific they are to Ohio (despite the title) and b) how complete a picture they give us. I’ve already read more than 5 books, but I’m not feeling like I have a good understanding of Ohio. I have a couple of other candidates, so I may have to add to the list.