Sometimes a novel is just a story; sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes a novel captures a place and time in such a way that it takes us beyond the characters’ lives. They’re part of the time and place, artifacts of it; their stories resonate with the social, political, and cultural environment. I’m thinking about Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn; The Girls by Emma Cline; City on Fire by GarthRisk Hallberg; and Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers to name a few.
Ohio, due out in mid-August, is as much about the characters as it is about the place and time where they came to adulthood. The title signals that as well as the Hopperesque cover, which is a brilliant entrée into the dark small-town story. The Hopper reference here is no accident. Markley’s genius is to recreate a dispiriting post-9/11 world of rust belt poverty, violence, drug addiction, and ennui, all delivered with a visceral punch. In fact, it’s harder for me to write about the plot and characters–there are many–than it is to describe that social milieu. That’s the good and the not-so-good about the book. There are many characters and I sometimes had difficulty remembering the backstories of each one when they reappeared. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this very noirish novel, just diluted it slightly.
Four characters anchor the story–high school alumni who converge on their home town of New Canaan one night, setting in motion a whirligig of violence and redemption. As they visit old haunts they meet up with other people from their high school days and Markley fills us in on the backstory of all their loves and losses. It’s pretty grim; no one has escaped from those dark high school years unscathed. A line from Nathan Hill’s The Nix is apropos: “Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.” Markley’s characters are not just supporting characters in their friends’ lives, they’re supporting characters in a larger story about the way we live now.
Fans of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom should enjoy this one.