Author: Stephen Markley

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7447-6

How often do you pick up a book by an author you've never heard of, a book about which you know nothing—no book review, no friend's recommendation, not even flap copy? For the books I ask to review, I've read promotional material so I have some inkling of what to expect. With Stephen Markley's Ohio I had nothing. I picked it up because, as an old (elderly) Ohio boy, the title appealed to me.

Perhaps reading it fresh, without expectations, without recommendations, increased my pleasure and admiration. I found it an awesome first novel. The flap copy describes Markley as an author, screenwriter, journalist, and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He's published two non-fiction books, Publish This Book and Tales of Iceland.

Ohio is interestingly structured. It begins with a Prelude, the description of a 2007 memorial parade and observance of the death of Rick Bricklan, a Marine killed in Iraq, the son of the town's Chief Investigator. The town is the fictional New Canaan, one of the many Ohio towns decimated by factory closings, its Main Street store-fronts empty, the shops unable to compete with Walmart. 

Ohio continues by following four graduates of New Canaan High through one "fried fever of a summer night in 2013." The four had known, or know of, each other in high school, and given that this is a small town, their lives had intersected in interesting, dramatic, even horrific ways. The first 120 pages evoke Bill Ashcroft, a 27-year-old alcoholic/drug addicted soul who's been hired by an old high school girl friend to bring a mysterious package from New Orleans to New Canaan; $1,000 up front, $1,000 more on delivery. I almost gave up at the end of the section because I didn't want to spend another 300 pages watching a drunk make one bad decision after another.

The next 100 pages, however, give us Stacey Moore, another New Canaan High graduate who happens to be in town on this special night. She's gay and through well-handled flashbacks Markley describes her adolescent confusion and the growing realization of her nature. It does not help her family feeling that her older brother is an evangelical minister who is certain that Stacey will burn in Hell for all Eternity for her lifestyle choice.

Next, Dan Eaton, an Army vet who lost an eye in Afghanistan, who has come to his hometown to see an old girlfriend and to visit his family. Dan's memories of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are so powerful, precise, and convincing I wondered if Markley himself is a vet. And each of these sections point toward a larger, more complex story.

The fourth section evokes Tina Ross, who was 15 years old when she started hanging out with the star of the high school football team. She is in her way more damaged than Ashcroft, Moore, or Eaton, and her story is both horrific and perversely satisfying.

Aside from the satisfactions of the plot (there is no aside from those satisfactions), there are the pleasures of Markley's observations.  Here an older German woman talking to Stacey: " . . .we are no longer cataloguing life with art, which is perhaps why art is failing. Life itself has become the final disposable, exploitable resource. We will do anything. Level whole mountains, erase whole species, relocate mighty rivers, burn forests to the ground, change the pH of the water, blanket ourselves in toxic chemistry. It took two million years for our species just to stand up and only five hundred generations to do the rest. Our culture is one of abundance, of entitlement, and basically little else. We've put our birthright at risk because we don't know how to control ourselves. Our lust."

And there are the pleasures of his descriptions. Here's an elderly teacher Dan is meeting in a senior center: "Gone was the elocution-school way of speaking, replaced by a slow and precise slur. Her hair was now bone white and so thin he could make out the moles on her scalp. She looked gaunt, her face an unhealthy plum, the blood looking congealed beneath the skin, and the right side drooped so the eye, lips, and cheek seemed in the process of sinking into quicksand. She took his hand in both of hers, the fingers pointed off liked the gnarled knots of a tree branch."

In the 484 pages of Ohio there are more than a dozen main characters and there must be more than fifty named characters. The book has an enormous number of moving parts, but for all the characters and all the moving parts Markley never lost me. I think he's done something remarkably difficult. He's conveyed—without editorializing or preaching—the impact of the closed factories and the lost jobs on the children of the town's residents. At the same time, he's told the stories of individuals who are more than economic statistics. A rich, thought-provoking, rewarding novel.