The only appropriate reaction to news of a prestige literary novel titled “Ohio” is to flinch. The state is now saddled with so many cultural clichés — Rust Belt decline, Trumpism, “economic anxiety” — that a big-statement novel with that title seems destined only to reinforce them. Novelist Lauren Groff explored her home state this year in “Florida,” but that was a collection of short stories — fit for the state’s messy, fragmentary nature.
But take heart — Markley’s debut novel is fragmentary too. Effectively four tart, well-turned novellas bundled in a symphonic prologue and epilogue, “Ohio” is designed more to consider a handful of lives than to make sweeping pronouncements about the state, although some ungainly big statements still creep in.
Set in 2013, the novel follows four 20-something characters who’ve returned to their southern Ohio hometown of New Canaan on the same night to settle scores and rekindle relationships.
Bill is the lefty world traveler with a drug habit, ferrying a mysterious package. Stacey is a literary scholar determined to confront the judgmental mother of her high school girlfriend, returning to a place “slow to adapt to … the tolerance of anything but heterosexual behavior.” Dan is an Afghanistan vet watching his hometown witness economic decline like “the first time he saw a lethal wound in battle.” Tina was bullied mercilessly in high school, and she knows where to find the lead bully.
Markley writes each of these character studies with powerhouse command and painterly detail about socioeconomic distinctions. “You could probably correlate the cliques of high school directly to each family’s bank account,” he writes, and he has a keen eye for the way not just money but parents, churches, schools, reading habits and more converge to shape distinct characters. And he’s especially attuned to the War on Terror’s role: The military has been an economic savior for many young New Caananites, but the receipt for financial stability is post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia.
That effect is evoked in the novel’s prologue, describing a military funeral six years before the main action. Markley calls what ensues “history’s dogs howling, suffering in every last nerve and muscle.” That line is a bit much, and an overwrought tone surfaces whenever Markley shifts from the engagingly individual to broader notions of New Canaan as the “microcosm poster-child of middle-American angst.” There’s Ohio, a complex swing state, and there’s “Ohio”: drug-sick, bigoted, vengeful and full of people who can’t let go of high school and are victims of “the profound catastrophe the planet was undergoing.”
Markley’s novel is in line with a dark strain of Midwestern fiction that runs from Edgar Lee Masters to Gillian Flynn. Its bleakness and style are appealing. Just don’t confuse it for literary realism, let alone reality.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By: Stephen Markley.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 482 pages, $27.
Event: 7 p.m. Aug. 30, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.