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Ohio by Stephen Markley: A Book Review

June 23, 2019

If you want to read a dark novel with tons of twists and turns in a similar vein as Gone Girl, Ohio is the book for you. Of course I picked it for its title and the cover. It takes place during one night in 2013, when a group of high school "friends" make a trip back home for a funeral several years after their graduation.The person who died was a soldier, Corporal Richard Jared Brinklan--known as Rick by his small circle of friends. Rick was recently killed in action in Iraq and his friends have converged onto their small Ohio hometown for his funeral, to include a hometown parade in his honor. From the opening page:

 

"The coffin had no body in it. Instead, the Star Legacy 18-Gauge Platinum Rose casket, on loan from the local Walmart had only a large American flag draped across its length. It rode down High Street on a flatbed trailer, tugged along by A Dodge RAM 2500 the color of an overripe cherry."

 

This novel had me wondering what was true and what wasn't the entire time the author painted a dark picture of a small Ohio town reeling after the economic recession and from effects of war and from drastic choices made in high school from the effects of all the following: political activism, prejudice, familial dysfunction and estrangement, addiction, mental illness, rejection, and jealousy -- all typical feelings of teenagers in high school but which ballooned out of control for most of these particular high school friends. 

 

The characters could be stereotypical but they are not in the way Stephen writes them: there is the high school football player, Todd, who seems representative of the typical high school jock, the younger permissive Tina with a crush on him who sheds her religious beliefs to believe in Todd who is one of the more disgusting characters in the book. There is the high school addict, Ashcroft, assigned to deliver something that figures prominently in the book by his once hot hook-up, Kaylyn, also an addict and the now girlfriend of the deceased; there is Stacey who discovers her sexual orientation too late after losing her virginity to Curt Moretti; there is Hailey Kowalczyk, now a nurse, who married someone else before her boyfriend, Dan, one of the nicer characters in the book--a red-headed veteran of the Iraq war with a terrible secret--could come home to her. There's the gentle musician, Ben, who commits suicide. There are the Flood brothers, rotten to the core, and homegrown terrorists. There is the book-loving, fun, but crass Lisa who is at the center of the story and has disappeared, whom Ashcroft and Stacey are earnestly seeking.

 

Their stories and their secrets are revealed from the perspective of several of the friends, except the friend KIA, Lisa who disappeared, and Ben, the friend who committed suicide. Most of the characters are past redemption, except Dan and Rick's police chief father, Martin Brinklan. Of course there are supportive mothers and fathers who are secondary characters, all with their own story to tell.

 

The story culminates in a shocking ending which takes place at a high school make-out spot on a lake in the woods, or similar to it, and a bar in Chicago, which helps to explain all the contradictions.

 

"Bill stared at the sparkling polish of the table's surface, fixing his eyes on a knot in the wood, a black divot that could have had a map of the world carved into its depths.... The bar could have been a sepulchre, a boneyard for their collected memories. Between them, they had stories they could never tell, and it was these moments intrinsic to their pasts that lingered in this quiet mahogany-and-brass niche of the world, creaking among the connecting joints of the bar stools or the maroon material of the booths, a place where adults would hear settling wood but the children would hear spirits. ... That fragrant blend of oil soap and wood cleaner ..." Just wonderful writing.

 

At the end you are left with a cutting feeling of regret, what if? I am planning on reading it again to see what I missed as the story evolves, which I usually never do. Connor Heath, thank you for picking this one out for me (we ran to the Nantucket Bookworks before its 8:30 p.m. closing).

 

If you are looking for a sunny beach read, Ohio is not for you. If you are looking for a well-written, disturbing story, Ohio is a seriously outstanding debut novel to read in between summer thunderstorms under the comfort of light summer linens still heavy enough to give you comfort.

 

Steven Markley is an author of a memoir and a travelogue, screenwriter, journalist and graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He lives in Los Angeles. Ohio, Steven Markley, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

 

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