Country Noir: Ohio by Stephen Markley

I can’t help but think that Ohio would have been a great book if Markley never went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Markley has a lot of talent, and there is a lot of good grist in there—even a real plot!—but Ohio displays all the worst tendencies of literary-minded fiction and it derails the book.

Ohio tells the interweaving stories of four twenty-somethings returning to their small, Rust Belt hometown.  The story is driven as much by who isn’t there as by who is (more on that in a bit).  I picked it up on the strength of Paul’s review at Paul’s Picks and comparisons to Friday Night Lights (in which you may have noticed some interest on my part).  I get Paul’s view and the comparison, but this is a book that falls well short of its potential.

Let me start with the good: Ohio includes some brilliant writing, and Markley’s skill is evident.

Bill lay beside his girlfriend in the sun, giddily, meltingly drunk.  Normally in those days, he felt up to his nostrils in guilt, desire, and self-disgust—disgust with oneself being a thing as cherished and protected as any bit of ego or pleasure.  But not that day at Jericho.  It was the last time he could really remember when they were all just young, arguments lacking permanence, sins missing any real vital evil.  He had lovers, yes, but he loved them.  He was hurting his friends, sure, but they were still childhood brothers.  With all that had passed between him and Rick, the friendship felt constantly volatile in his hands, like unstable explosive.  Yet even Katlyn standing there in the water, looking as gorgeous and iridescent as a dragonfly, he felt a surge of love and regret unlike anything he’d experienced before.  Because they were just kids, and that day they drank and they danced and they laughed at the sky-blue heavens, and it really felt like anything could be fixed and anything could be forgiven.

The sky over the place you were born has a familiarity beyond how the clouds roll in or how the stars wink at you at night.  The sky over your home behaves like that moment when, as a parachutist, you pull the rip cord and the heavens snatch you back.  Even if you’ve traveled the world and seen better sunsets, better dawns, better storms—when you get that remembered glimpse of the fields and forests and rises and rivers of your home meeting the horizon, your jaw will tighten.  The rip cord will yank you back from the descent.

Ohio is structured as a prologue, epilogue, and four sections, with each section focusing on one character—Bill Ashcraft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton, and Tina Ross.  Each left New Canaan, and each returns.  Their stories overlap, but usually only in a trains-passing-in-the-night sense, and the reader must put together the puzzle pieces.

Over it all ostensibly loom two Bill’s two dead best friends from high school—Rick Brinklan, who died in Iraq, and Ben Harrington who died in bed from a heroin overdose.  But the narrative often winds up dominated, and to its benefit, by Lisa Han, who left and never looked back, and by Kaylyn, who doesn’t get her own POV section but tends to have her tentacles in everyone else’s story.

Ohio is set a crumbling, fictional Rust Belt town in Northeast Ohio between Cleveland and Columbus called New Canaan.  The story is set in 2013, although it frequently turns on events from when the characters were in high school in the early 2000s (making them just a little younger than me).

There is nothing wrong with the structure of the story, per se, but writing for the New York City literati mars its execution.  The plot gets squeezed into the corners by the incredible bulk of the literary stylings when instead the latter should accent the former.

Ohio gets off to a poor start with the Bill Ashcraft section.  Bill is truly insufferable.  A dentist’s kid who rails about the injustice of the world.  Someone who scoffs at the false consciousness of their lesser peers but who expresses their wokeness primarily through drugs and conspiracy theories.  We all know people like Bill Ashcraft and Jonah, his rightwing counterpart.  The sort of guy who “never actually met a person to whom he did not enjoy ranting.”  But we don’t write about them, because they are the dullest people imaginable.  When the rightwinger leaves the bar they are drinking in, another character asks why they don’t follow him.  “Because then we would have to listen to him” is the very wise reply.

The book gets better after the Bill Ashcraft section, which makes sense, because the average literati will have stopped reading by then, ready to go ahead and dub the book brilliant.  Even if Stacey Moore, whose section follows Bill’s, isn’t to his left, her Leftism is the more real one, because it isn’t simply cobbled together from conspiracy theories, other people’s ideas, and ego.  There is a certain self-awareness to Stacey’s section that makes it bearable, even if she winds up the sort of person who gives their kid an ambiguous name just in case they decide they’re gender fluid.  And Stacey, at least, is key to the plot.

Dan Eaton’s section, on the other hand, is almost superfluous and could have been cut with limited need to rewrite.  You can almost see the lecturer at the Iowa’s workshop pacing back and forth, “You have to have a war crime scene if you’re going to write the Great American Novel.”  And Markley left no possible box unchecked in his kitchen sink attempt at the Great American Novel.

The best section is the fourth and final one, focusing on Tina Ross, who has been popping up in conversations throughout the book.  I would say it’s a shame that the best section is at the end, but it is the best section in significant part because Markley can’t avoid the plot any longer.  And, in the end, he gives us an ending that haunted all of an almost sleepless night.  But it was only so effecting because it was lurid, not literary.

3.5 of 5 Stars.


Paul at Paul’s Picks – review.

Stefan at the Civilian Reader – review.

Tonstant Reader at Tonstant Reader Reviews – review.

9 thoughts on “Country Noir: Ohio by Stephen Markley

  1. I tend to like and/or can be very forgiving towards a literary style. The problem is if the characters are unlikeable, I can’t be very forgiving. And that’s where literary novels are really letting me down. Bad characters and the mandatory progressive themes have wrecked things for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The writing was superb. But no matter how literary you want your novel to be, you can’t tell a story without plot. At some point you have to set the former aside in favor of the latter.

      I’m glad I didn’t DNF it, which I almost did because the most annoying character by far dominates the first section.


  2. I agree, there was some (if not more) unevenness in the characters… I just took it as a whole. I guess what got me is that I have known these people in my life, and it felt in some was they were compressed into this book, but it got me. Especially being a teacher and now 20 years in, I’m seeing these crazy characters come back after two decades. Scary sh*^!!! Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It wasn’t even that Bill was unrealistic and that I don’t know people like that. It’s that I would never willingly listen to them for as long as it took me to force my way through that section.

      The Dan Eaton section was superfluous, and the Obligatory War Crime grates, but it was a strong section standing alone and Dan a good character.

      Liked by 1 person

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