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OHIO, Stephen Markley’s much-heralded (and deservedly so) debut novel, hit me close to home. Markley, like myself, is a native son of the Buckeye State. He was born and raised in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the real-world model of his tale's fictional town of New Canaan, which is a short distance from my own hometown of Columbus. I wanted to see what he got right (almost everything) and wrong (a few geographical bumps in the road). What is important is that Markley paints a perfect and haunting portrait of growing up in a small American town and the manner in which that upbringing affects one’s life trajectory, for good and otherwise.

Let me put it another way: OHIO is a sprawling and deep study of friendships and enmities spawned in rural American adolescence, then nurtured and cross-pollinated across a decade or so of rural America. It is complicated territory, to say the least. The book makes demands. It focuses on four primary characters, each of whom gets his or her own section, and a host of secondary ones. Even if Markley had not told his tale so well, I would have given him points for somehow sorting out who among this sprawling cast of memorable characters he would concentrate on and who would ride the bench at second string. The football metaphor is deliberate.

The athletes at New Canaan High School were more than weekend heroes. They carried the dreams of the town, the wish that someone would break out. All four stars of the book --- Bill Ashcraft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton and Tina Ross --- are connected to the New Canaan High School football or basketball teams in some way. They find themselves back in their hometown of New Canaan on the same fateful July night in 2013, a decade or so past their glory days, for entirely different purposes.

"Markley paints a perfect and haunting portrait of growing up in a small American town and the manner in which that upbringing affects one’s life trajectory, for good and otherwise."

The least likable of the four, Bill Ashcraft, leads things off following a short and tragic Prelude. Bill is a head-scratcher, consumed with a self-imposed self-importance and a puzzling, destructive, racial self-loathing. His section, “Bill Ashcraft and the Great American Thing,” is the most difficult to wade through. Academically degreed and awash in drug addiction, Bill is transporting a mysterious package to New Canaan from New Orleans and barely hits the town limits before running into a number of old friends and antagonists with mixed results.

Stacey Moore, perhaps the most appealing of the quartet, is there to meet/confront the mother of her former lover at the mom’s request, but has a later serendipitous meeting that is much more momentous. Dan Eaton, who is home following three military tours of duty, has a dinner date of his own with a former lover, but not before helping out a friend and facing his own demons. Then there is star-crossed Tina Ross, who lives in another rural community a couple of hours and a world away from New Canaan. Nothing spectacular was expected of Tina, but when she is on the cusp of a life milestone, she returns to town to put paid to a bit of unfinished business.

All of their stories are told against the backdrop of a minor town myth that whispers its way into the narrative throughout the book and into its Coda, which possibly tries to do a bit too much but is ultimately effective. If Markley’s intent was to leave the reader gasping for air as things are wrapped up, he succeeded.

As I alluded to, there are several errors: 1) New Canaan/Mount Vernon is located in Central Ohio, not Northeast Ohio, a mistake that I would not otherwise note except that a) it is repeated throughout the book, and b) the central and northeast portions of the state are very different; 2) New Canaan/Mount Vernon is not equidistant from Cleveland and Columbus. The distance between Cleveland and Mount Vernon is twice that between Mount Vernon and Columbus; 3) Unlike the hapless Bill Ashcraft, one would never travel from New Orleans to New Canaan by way of Marietta, Ohio. One would go through or around Cincinnati before passing through Columbus; and 4) Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, is to the west of Ohio State University, not the north. Natives of Ohio and few others will note that.

What everyone who encounters OHIO will find is a compelling work full of angst and the bittersweetness of youth. My notes about the novel end with this: “Like Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, but with better editing and more author restraint.” This is the book that many will be reading in the months ahead, and many more should.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 24, 2018

by Stephen Markley

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501174487
  • ISBN-13: 9781501174483