Ohio by Stephen Markley

My College Sociology Notes. Circa 1997:

Definition of Identity. How others see you.How you want others to see you.How you see yourself.

This novel took me back to that classroom in college. My professor was trying to teach us the “academic language” for what we were supposedly doing in those four years of schooling. Even though I am four or five years older than the characters in Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio, I know exactly what they are going through. And really, we are all dealing with the same things in that point in our lives: Responsibility, politics, economics, sexuality, careers, religion, family.

This masterful contemporary novel is about four people in their late 20s who are forced back to their hometown after being away for a long time. Caught between 9/11 and The Great Recession, New Canaan’s residents have not fared well; several tragedies have hit the town hard in the last several years, from the economic downturn to heroin addiction to a soldier’s death. Ohio forces the reader to take a long look at what happens to yourself and your town in those ten years after high school. How do young people grow into adults? How does the outside world infringe upon the innocence of our childhood?

Markley focuses on six characters in total, four main stories which are bookended by a short prelude and coda. These characters are raw and complex. Some were strongly connected when growing up, yet all will collide into each other on this trip home. Bill is a lifelong rebel who has been asked to make the long drive home from New Orleans to deliver a mysterious package. Stacey is a current grad student whose sexuality does not exactly mesh well with the religious community in town. Dan is an army vet who has found a purpose outside of The Cane (New Canaan’s nickname), but still has not found wholeness. Tina is a victim of many abuses and while she has found some stability in her life, she will not and cannot leave those wrongs behind. The authors tells these character’s stories and the whole town’s stories through flashbacks and character-told narratives. Markley’s writing is impressive on every page; it’s mature, lyrical and deserving of much praise.   

Ohio is not a book about living in the past, nor is it about trying to change the past, but as Markley so eloquently puts it, it’s about the storm called progress. For me, the narrative combines a Richard Russo novel, Hillbilly Elegy, and Billy’s Long Halftime Walk. It’s an excellent contemplation of small town life in a part of this country, and a war that many people have forgotten about. I wholeheartedly recommend Ohio; it is very important literature.

5 out of 5 stars

Comes out on August 21st, 2018.

Thank you to NetGalley, Simon & Schuster, and Stephen Markley for the advanced copy for review.

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