Ohio by Stephen Markley (Simon & Schuster) deserves to be only the first of a series because its characters are worth more than one book, and the story of their America is worth more than one look.
This sprawling, spiraling novel begins one summer night in 2013, as four former high school classmates are about to meet again in New Canaan, their Rust Belt Ohio town. Each is traveling from far corners, each bearing memories that must be obeyed and secrets that will be revealed. The book is narrated from each of their viewpoints in a gripping saga that slowly builds into a symphony that hits all the right notes.
New Canaan is a snapshot of so many places in America, its industries gone, its farms taken over by agribusiness giants, and the hearts of its inhabitants broken by war, drugs and/or divorce. The landscape may be burned out but Markley’s prose is lush.
Bonded by watching the Twin Towers fall from their classroom television sets a decade before, and the punishing social web of adolescence (middle school crushes, senior class drinking parties, teenage carnality), all are about to face the whispered rumors of The Murder That Never Was. Follow the characters through a winding mystery that reveals the dreams and insecurities of a generation resilient to hardship, yet vulnerable as each individual faces their grim past.
Bill Ashcraft is arriving after a 14 hour, LSD-fueled drive north from New Orleans, with a small package strapped to the undercarriage of his pick-up truck. Beat up in high school for wearing a President Bush t-shirt and the words, “Wanted: International Terrorist,” he’s been working for left-of-the-left causes and has a sour view of the American system: “It gives you cars and credit and religion and television and all this other comfort that we go and call ‘freedom.’ ”
Stacey Moore, a nascent lesbian in high school is now a doctoral candidate with a thesis titled “A Theory of Ecology, Literature, and Love Across Deep Time.” She’s in town to deliver a long overdue letter to her very religious brother and meet the woman she’s feared and hated for her entire adult life. Up her arm climbs a tattoo that reads, “All dreams of the soul end in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.”
Dan Eaton, once skinny and pale with freckles, glasses and red hair, had three tours in Afghanistan, where he lost an eye. He’s come to New Canaan, back to the “flag and bumper sticker patriots” to see a former teacher before she dies, the woman who sparked his love of history. He’s also meeting his high school sweetheart who tells him “Girls, man — teenage girls can be so…fucked up,” before sharing secrets he immediately wants to forget.
And Tina Ross, an expert at living with secrets, is returning “to all the corners of her memory where she rarely ventured.” Once a timid religious girl, her beauty attracted the attention of the high school football star. Because she would do anything for him, she became someone she didn’t recognize.
On almost every page, Markley adds perspective to the story of America today with words that resonate, such as the following three bits, plucked at random:
“It’s hard to say how any of this ends or how it began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear. There is only this wild, fucked-up flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died.”
“Because when we look at history, we only look at the victor…and it becomes difficult to contemplate any document of civilization as anything but a document of barbarism.”
“And in the last decade, everyone had learned to be a truth masseuse.”
Ohio will be available for purchase on August 21st.
ABOUT STEPHEN MARKLEY
Stephen Markley is an author, screenwriter, and journalist. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Markley’s previous books include 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. He lives in Los Angeles.