This new millennium has been a rough one for America. Just one year in and a few men with boxcutters wounded us. We realized the oceans did not make us invulnerable. Our reaction was malpractice and we have not recovered. The most powerful and costly military in human history is mired in an endless war with impoverished people using improvised weapons. Unable to win a clear victory, our impotence is exposed. Our once vibrant economy has been hollowed out along with our institutions and infrastructure. The recession erased the accumulated wealth of generations of middle-class families. Corporate control of government has left ordinary Americans struggling and disillusioned. Ridden with anxiety they self-medicate with meth, crack, and heroin. The bonds of community have been eroded by the cults of the prosperity gospel and self-help–atomizing doctrines of alienation and anomie. Those of us who came of age before 2000 remember a very different country. In Ohio, Stephen Markley composes a literary symphony to the generation who came of age as America began to fail.
Ohio begins with a parade to honor Rick Brinklan, the local hero who died in the war. This short prelude is a poetic introduction to the town of New Canaan (The Cane) and its people. It reminded me of “The Things They Carried,” the incomparable short story by Tim O’Brien with the short sentences propulsively driving the details of the people and the place. In the prelude, Markley warns us his story will take us for a ride, “It’s hard to say where any of this ends or how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear.”
The heart of the Ohio symphony is the four long narrative movements that tell the stories of Bill Ashcroft, the disillusioned activist silencing his demons with alcohol and pills; Stacey Moore, the lesbian fundamentalist apostate longing for her first love Lisa Han whose passion for life runs deep through the book; Dan Eaton, the romantic wounded by endless war and lost love; and Tina Ross, a struggling WalMart worker tortured by memories of the past. They weave memories of high school with the present as they travel to New Canaan from their individual exile.
Their coming home is not a reunion, it’s a syzygy, a conjunction of three or more celestial bodies in orbit of New Canaan. They scattered after graduation and while their lives still orbit New Canaan from very different distances, it’s just synchronicity that brings them into alignment. But what beautiful synchronicity.
Ohio ends with a coda that expands on a motif that appeared in every movement, the local folklore, a legend they all discount. It all brings us to “that eternal moment the prophets all gossip about: when you see the whole span of yourself, how astonishing and alive you were.” It is a devasting conclusion to this great opus.
I read 200 or more good books a year and I am confident Ohio will be the best book I read this year. I am pretty sure it will fit comfortably into the list of the 100 best books in my lifetime and I read 200 or more books a year. Markley captures the zeitgeist of America, the fears and hopes, the diverging passions, and the dramatic cultural changes in his characters’ narratives. It is one of those sprawling books that takes us everywhere and brings us back home, exhausted and devastated by the pain and loss–the diminishment of hope, but also invigorated by the love, strength, and humanity.
I was initially drawn to Ohio by its cover. The lighting reminded me of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” which signaled a humane sensibility and at its core, Ohio is humane, filled with compassion for its people. Or as Stacey Moore realized, “How quickly contempt can dissipate when faced with the pathetic humanness of another person. You see inside them for even the briefest moment and suddenly empathy blows through. A dark sky cleared by a hard rain.”
Ohio is beautifully written. I suppose some people will think it is over-written. Sometimes the words come together with such deliberate care that I stopped simply to savor the composition. I am one of those who is happy to be interrupted in my progress through a story to savor how its words come together. If you have ever lived where snow lasted for months, the descriptive perfection of “scabs of melting snow” will ring true. The writing is often visually beautiful, “He could see for a hundred miles in every direction, from the burlap plains to the peaks and ridges that looked like bones breaking through the skin of the earth.” More than anything, though, Markley’s writing is muscular. It is active with strong and specific verbs. I love how he uses verbs as in when Ashcroft recalls his high school friends and “what a web of truly vexing remembrance these aging boys had constellated within him.” Wow!
There is this sweet sadness when I finish a book as powerful as Ohio. The pleasure of reading is tempered by the knowledge I will never discover it for the first time again. That moment of surprise that feels like I have struck a vein of pure gold is replaced by remembrance. I envy those who will soon be reading Ohio and their thrill of discovery.
Ohio will be released August 21st. I received advance reading copies from the publisher through NetGalley and Shelf Awareness. Why both? I entered the Shelf Awareness, but thought I was unlikely to win, so I requested at NetGalley and I was lucky because this book is going to be on my all-time favorites list for a long time.