Stephen Markley’s debut novel “Ohio” is an unforgiving portrayal of post-9/11 life in a small Midwestern town. Horrific in a way that is only possible when grounded in reality, Markley’s novel explores the cruelties that have been inflicted by and on each of the characters.
In the acknowledgements, Markley writes of that particular feeling of wanting a version of yourself that no longer exists — a feeling that is remarkably similar to grief. The characters of “Ohio” are haunted by this wanting, unable to escape its effects. One fateful night in 2013, the four main characters return to their hometown of New Canaan, their nights crossing over one another even as each person is profoundly alone in their experiences.
Bill, Stacey, Dan and Tina are all running from their own ghosts. But as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more clear that these individual lives have been entangled long after they each left New Canaan in hopes of escaping their fate and remain enmeshed even as they return to it.
“Ohio” is gripping; it is hard to look away from even as there are moments that are difficult to stomach. In the past few years, middle America has been a central topic of discussion, with some people crediting Donald Trump’s election to the undetected anger that thrummed throughout these “flyover states.” The novel understands this anger in all of its myriad ways. We see characters who do horrible, unspeakable things only to learn that they faced similar abuse. “Ohio” is an understanding of the human condition, but not an excusing of it.
The novel is split into four sections, with two additional sections serving as a prologue and an epilogue. This structure is masterfully wielded to create an interlocking story in which each individual account both corroborates and conflicts with the others. In doing so, Markley is effectively calling attention to the way memory is a subjective thing. Everyone remembers the past, especially their own, slightly different than anyone else would. And because of the way each character’s story is told, taking place over the same night with liberally distributed and lengthy flashbacks to the characters’ lives over the past decade, the unknowability of an individual life is explored. Bill sees a woman crying at a red light, Stacey sees someone getting into a car — these moments are brief for them but earth-shattering for the characters involved in those moments. Meanwhile, mysteries in one account are answered by another account. Each individual account reveals that whole tragedies and life-changing realizations were occuring for the other characters in these brief moments that they saw one another.
Everyone is looking for answers that they think no one has, when in reality there are no secrets, no mysteries in New Canaan. It is just a question of who knows what.
New Canaan is aptly named, calling to mind the Biblical Canaan, who was cursed by Noah for the sins of his father, Ham. Throughout the novel, each character returns to the questions of the New Canaan curse. They note the number of their friends who died of drugs or in war. These events have led this group of people — the four characters as well as the vast collection of other individuals, dead or alive, who were all finishing high school in 2001 and 2002 — to believe that the lot of them are cursed. As each of these kids turned 18 they were met with 9/11, the 2008 recession and the opioid crisis. There is a weight of hopelessness.
Markley writes of wanting some part of yourself back, wanting to return to a time of life that made more sense. But if anything, the more “Ohio” unfolds, the more it becomes apparent that perhaps you never had it, and that part of your life never existed to begin with.
“Ohio” is certainly not the first story to tackle the complex experience of growing up in a small town, chafing to leave while slowly realizing that leaving a place does not mean it leaves you. However, the novel stands out in the way it manages to accurately, realistically contain so many different experiences. The ghosts of “Ohio” will linger long after the last page is read.