Stephen Markley Ohio

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

The first thing you need to know about this novel that seems to cap­ture Trump’s Amer­ica so well is that Stephen Markley wrote it be­fore Trump be­came pres­i­dent. Which is pretty much the same thing you need to know about Trump’s Amer­ica – that it pre-ex­isted Trump. The sec­ond is not to ex­pect a tra­di­tional nar­ra­tive. As Markley writes in the pre­lude: 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. There is only this wild, fucked-up flamethrower of a col­lec­tive dream in which we were all born and trav­eled and died.

Ohio be­gins with a pa­rade in the fic­tional town of New Canaan, Ohio, to hon­our a lo­cal boy, Rick Brin­klan, killed in Iraq. It’s a blus­tery cold day in Oc­to­ber, the town is “sleeved in red, white, and blue”, the cof­fin comes from Wal­mart. Markley uses the pa­rade to de­liver a vivid, quick-sketch por­trait of the de­pressed, opi­ate-in­un­dated, rust-belt town, the sort where the lo­cal sport­ing goods store makes most of its sales on guns and ammo, and where the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, with its wave of fore­clo­sures and evic­tions, meant some peo­ple “just van­ished, whole fam­i­lies blinked out of ex­is­tence like the Rap­ture”. It’s a Chris­tian town, and a mostly white one. Rick has left a hero-shaped hole in it.

Six years later, on a hot sum­mer night in 2013, “his­tory’s dogs” are “howl­ing”. Four for­mer school­mates of Rick’s are, by coin­ci­dence, re­turn­ing home for rea­sons ur­gent, per­sonal, se­cret and not nec­es­sar­ily honourable. Home is the place you run from, the place that draws you back, the place that breaks you, and the place that may – or may not – make you whole again.

The first sec­tion be­longs to Bill. “Bill had never ac­tu­ally met a per­son to whom he did not en­joy rant­ing.” In high school, Bill had been a rare lib­eral, whose an­ti­war views brought him into con­flict with his fel­low stu­dents, in­clud­ing Rick. Now he’s a mouthy, drug-fucked, self-right­eous veteran of the Oc­cupy move­ment with a mys­te­ri­ous par­cel taped around his mid­dle. In a con­fu­sion of past and present, dream and hal­lu­ci­na­tion, self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and self-dis­gust, he ca­reens drunk­enly through the town he couldn’t wait to leave, wait­ing to hand over what­ever it is he’s been paid to trans­port across state lines.

Sec­ond comes Stacey, who is on her way to meet the woman she “feared and hated her en­tire adult life” and de­liver to some­one else the let­ter she had to write to set her­self free. The third part is de­voted to Dan, who is a veteran, a de­cent man, but shoul­der­ing his own de­mons. Lay­ers of his­tory ac­cu­mu­late, per­spec­tives shift. The fourth pro­tag­o­nist sur­prised me.

Pay at­ten­tion to the mi­nor char­ac­ters, be­cause they hold the key to the clever, hy­per­ki­netic, back-and-forth, twist­ing Ru­bik’s cube of a plot.

Ohio is a literary thriller and work of gritty re­al­ism that aims to be a novel of ideas as well. Its nar­ra­tive jumps crazily about in time yet man­ages to co­here, and the writ­ing con­tains many mo­ments of genius. When Markley ren­ders Rick’s fa­ther at the pa­rade, “his face weary, good mar­ble cov­ered by bad clay”, for ex­am­ple, or de­scribes cows on a road as mov­ing “like a river of flesh and leather”, the reader in me thrills and the writer in me bows in ad­mi­ra­tion.

There are other times when the au­thor, a bit like Bill, can’t re­sist step­ping onto his soap­box, and pep­pers his prose with preachily earnest lines such as, “The nat­u­ral world ex­isted for her, as it did for most of the Global North, only as an­other theme park, a Dis­ney­land.” As soon as he re­turns his at­ten­tion to the ac­tion, a whoosh of en­ergy rushes back onto the page. Ul­ti­mately, it is the char­ac­ters’ ac­tions, more than their ru­mi­na­tions, that re­veal them.

If the char­ac­ters’ col­lec­tive lost youth had a name, it would be Lisa Han, a girl who left New Canaan for parts un­known long ago. Lisa was New Canaan’s high school in­tel­lec­tual femme fa­tale, “more cre­ative, aware, and cu­ri­ous”, in Stacey’s es­ti­ma­tion, “than the next seven hun­dred peo­ple at their school com­bined”. We learn that she had the habit of fill­ing the mar­gins of her books with “Jaunty, clever quips, oc­ca­sion­ally filthy, al­ways charm­ing”. We then learn that such margina­lia in­cluded the in­scrip­tion “Je­sus

I’m wet” in Wuthering Heights. We also hear a lot about how charm­ing she is, but the anec­dotes fall a bit short of con­vinc­ing. It’s like be­ing told some­one is witty, and then wait­ing for them to say any­thing that makes you smile.

Ohio, for all its man­i­fest virtues, pos­sesses a par­tic­u­lar kind of Amer­i­can sen­si­bil­ity that doesn’t trans­late in ev­ery de­tail. Then again, one of its virtues is pre­cisely how very Amer­i­can it is – how it con­jures up in mi­cro­cosm a na­tion in de­cline, in all its grub­bi­ness and tragedy and pain. Ohio is as Amer­i­can as Wal­mart and war, as Amer­i­can as the un­happy vi­o­lence in which its pages are soaked. Markley evokes the hor­ror of war in un­blink­ing, ex­plicit, gory de­tail. But he also gives sharp ex­pres­sion to the im­plicit vi­o­lence of ho­mo­pho­bia, and the am­bi­ent sav­agery of sex­ual en­ti­tle­ment and pre­da­tion in a high school en­vi­ron­ment where jocks are treated like gods. There’s even a kind of vi­o­lence in the joy Stacey de­rives from de­scrib­ing her ex­otic ad­ven­tures to her neme­sis, a woman who’d failed to do more with her life than grow old in the place she was born.

One of the most bril­liant and orig­i­nal metaphors in this dark and im­pres­sive, if im­per­fect, book ties to­gether the con­cepts of vi­o­lence and home. As a sol­dier, Dan was once di­rectly shot at. His body ar­mour saved his life while slam­ming hard against his chest. Dan came to view home as “a rov­ing sen­sa­tion, not a place, and for a large chunk of his life, the feel of that bul­let to the chest, that was home”. CG

Si­mon & Schus­ter, 496pp, $39.99

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