From its opening pages, in which an empty casket is paraded through the streets of a small town in Ohio so that its townspeople may pay tribute to one of their golden boys who has died fighting overseas, debut novelist Stephen Markley makes his intentions clear: Ohio is a eulogy to middle America and its flyover states. It is a battle cry for the forgotten pockets of the country and the tired, poor and dispossessed whose voices we do not care to hear.
Bookended by death and spanning nearly 500 pages, Ohio interweaves the stories of four former classmates, all of whom have left New Canaan, Ohio, only to return home on the same fateful night. We meet Bill Ashcroft, an outspoken activist who has come to deliver a dubious package that is strapped to the underside of his truck; Stacey Moore, a grad student whose love life has plagued her since her school days, who has returned to make peace with the mother of an old flame; Dan Eaton, a history-loving bookworm-turned-veteran who lost his eye in the war and is back for dinner with his high school sweetheart; and Tina Ross, former town beauty who now lives one town over, works at Walmart and needs to get over her football star ex-boyfriend once and for all. Each character returns haunted by the ghosts of New Canaan’s past, unaware of how their past and present actions will converge with destructive and terrifying consequences.
Timely and of vital importance, Ohio delves into the spectrum of issues consuming contemporary America’s Rust Belt, exploring topics like joblessness, addiction, terrorism, sexuality, religion and sex, to name a few. Markley’s disturbing masterpiece reads like the offspring of Harlan Coben, Jonathan Franzen and Hanya Yanagihara: an illuminating snapshot of our current era masquerading as a twisted character-driven thriller, filled with mordant wit and soul-shaking pathos. The picture Ohio paints is bleak, brutal and unrelenting, and while moments of wry humor exist, they are but pinpricks of light in an otherwise extremely dark novel. At times the graphic violence and ceaseless despair depicted seem so gratuitous that categorizing the book as “misery porn” feels like a justified warning. However, Markley purposely provokes his readers, challenging us to confront and ponder topics and people that make us uncomfortable. His method will undoubtedly prove divisive, but those who have the temerity to let Ohio absorb them will be rewarded with an edifying and unforgettable read that leaves them breathless.