Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, May 4, 2018

Friday, May 4, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Ohio

Simon & Schuster: Ohio by Stephen Markley

Simon & Schuster: Ohio by Stephen Markley

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Simon & Schuster: Ponti by Sharlene Teo


by Stephen Markley

It began with the economic devastation of cities and towns in America's Rust Belt, and the housing crisis that sparked the Great Recession of 2007-09. It accelerated when the news of thousands of deaths annually from drug overdoses, many of them in the country's small towns and rural areas, started making headlines. And it culminated in the political tsunami of 2016, when voters in many of those same communities tipped the electoral balance in Donald Trump's favor in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and sent him to the White House. 

Nonfiction writers and memoirists like George Packer (The Great Unwinding) and J.D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) have captured the roiling sense of unease and dislocation that has gripped the United States in the first two decades of the 21st century. It was inevitable that an ambitious novelist eventually would take on that task. In his bold debut novel, Ohio, Stephen Markley visits the fictional northeastern Ohio town of New Canaan to paint in vivid colors the shattered dreams and stunted lives of young adults removed by roughly a decade from their high school graduation. It's an intensely realistic and keenly observed portrait that puts a human face on subjects often obscured by statistics and expert opinion.

Structured as four novella-length sections and a brief, shocking coda, the contemporary action of the novel unfolds over the course of a single night in the summer of 2013. On that evening, four people--three of them members of the Class of 2004 and one two years their junior--return to New Canaan, "the microcosm poster child of middle-American angst," to deal with some painful or difficult piece of unfinished business.

Bill Ashcraft, a bitter critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose political activism has foundered as a result of an intemperate tweet, is carrying a mysterious package from New Orleans to earn $2,000. Stacey Moore, a graduate student in literature, comes home for an encounter with the mother of her high school lover Lisa Han, missing since graduation, and to deliver a letter to her estranged brother. Dan Eaton, a veteran of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan who has lost an eye in combat, returns to visit a former girlfriend. And Tina Ross, who's never made it farther away than the nearby town where she works at Walmart, is back to avenge a terrible wrong inflicted on her.

Markley slips effortlessly from each character's crisis on that single night into reminiscences of their high school days. But these are anything but the happy recollections of idyllic prom dates or joyful autumn nights at the football stadium. There are darker memories unleashed here, ones that include rape and a suspected murder.

All of those memories have been shadowed by the specter of 9/11 and the economic decline that seems to have slowed the characters' progress into adulthood. "Their generation, the classes of the first five years of the infant millennium," as Markley sums them up, "were all stepping through life with a piano suspended above them and bull's-eyes on the crowns of their skulls."

Dan Eaton, for one, who's been emotionally and physically devastated by his service in the wars of the Middle East--his anguish revealed in vividly rendered scenes--comes to question the point of that service as he reflects on the death of Rick Brinklan. Rick is one of several losses from the high school football team (the death of the quarterback by overdose among them), whose star, Todd Beaufort, loses his grip on dreams of fame at Ohio State and an NFL career.

And though it's been spared the worst of the damage of industry fleeing for places where cheap labor is readily available, their home town, New Canaan, seems as if it's treading water. Like some of its real-life counterparts, the town, "one of the minor places that bore the aftershocks of deindustrialization," reflects the telltale signs of decay. The steel plant, an "ugly industrial boil" that closed in the 1980s, has been left standing by a town "hoping that someday whatever mechanized processes lay inside would simply start back up of their own accord."

But for all his evident desire to make a big statement about America's current troubled temperament, Markley doesn't neglect the intimate dimension of his characters' inner lives. In the most emotionally resonant section of the novel, for example, he describes the love between Stacey Moore and Lisa Han, an affair whose intensity is equal to the risk these high school girls take that their relationship will be exposed. It's a profoundly empathetic and moving portion of the novel. And in the novel's concluding scene, when Bill Ashcraft confesses to Stacey, "You have no idea how much I miss all of them. How sorry I am for everything," we've come to share his sense of regret.

Ohio is a dark and deeply felt examination of a generation confronting problems that can't be solved quickly or with ease. It won't be the last novel written about the current troubles in small-town America, but it has earned a place in any conversation about the important role fiction can play in reflecting life back to us when we look squarely in the mirror. --Harvey Freedenberg

Simon & Schuster, $27, hardcover, 496p., 9781501174476, August 21, 2018

Simon & Schuster: Ohio by Stephen Markley

Stephen Markley: Middle-American Angst

photo: Michael Amico

Stephen Markley is a screenwriter and journalist, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is the author of Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book and Tales of Iceland. His debut novel is Ohio, coming from Simon & Schuster in August. He lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @StephenMarkely.

Hillbilly Elegy and Janesville are two recent nonfiction works exploring problems like deindustrialization and addiction in small-town America, issues the characters face in Ohio's fictional setting of New Canaan, Ohio. What made you want to address these issues through fiction? And how is literary fiction relevant to our understanding of difficult contemporary economic and social problems like these?

Part of the problem is that we're now on to the fifth or sixth paradigm-shifting crisis of my lifetime, and it can be difficult to find the time to reflect on and process what happened in, say, the year 2003, when the Iraq war began, let alone the 15 years that followed. Our communications tend to favor the most gratifying, instantaneous, unreflective forms--basically a mad race to deliver the most outraged tweet or think piece before moving on to whatever's next. Reading and writing fiction gives us access to that empathetic space where we can slow down, draw a breath and actually try to process everything that's happened to us. Maybe I'm a sucker, but I still believe the novel, as a form, has a creative power that makes a VR headset look like a cheap conjurer's trick.

Ohio skillfully captures the essence of small-town life without condescension or caricature. What personal experience or research did you draw on for that portrait?

It's funny because much of the broad spectrum of what we call "the media" has taken to discussing non-coastal city, non-urban life in an almost zoological way. Well, I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and that was just normal to me. Though the book is not an exact replica of my hometown, I certainly borrowed freely and shamelessly from that place, particularly my high school, and it wasn't difficult to access what it felt like to come from a town like New Canaan, to move away and return, to gossip about what's been going on, to drink till the bars kick you out when you’re back home.

The heart of your novel consists of four novella-like sections, each focusing on a character returning to unfinished business in New Canaan on a single fateful summer night in 2013. How did you settle on that structure and what made it feel right for this novel?

Mostly, I just had these four voices in my head, and I knew their stories would intersect in surprising and upsetting ways. I've also always loved films and novels that depart from traditional, programmatic structures, that play with time and force the reader or viewer to pay careful attention to each and every word, scene, object and gesture. It produces this somewhat spooky, unsettling effect where you constantly feel like you've time traveled, and it means you can't really see and understand everything on the first go-around. Maybe it's totally narcissistic and Room 237-esque to hope that the fourth and fifth layers of your story will ever have a life on some Reddit thread, but I've always dug narratives that invite that.

One of the most compelling sections of the novel describes the intense and, at the time, dangerous emotional and romantic involvement of two female characters during high school. How difficult was it to write that segment?

I think you have to approach any character with humility. You have to see their humanity first and foremost and understand that it is only an accident of the cosmos that whatever hardship, obstacle or horror they face is not your own. I also have some friends who've endured what I would describe as pretty harrowing experiences, and for whatever reason they have seen me as a person they can trust and confide in. Those conversations and stories sort of get liquefied in the writing process, so none of them come out as they happened, but the emotional truth, hopefully, gets distilled. It's been an enormous relief to have certain people read the book and tell me that, at least for them, I got it right. I just so firmly believe that good, brave art often comes from taking a radical leap outside of one's own safety, experiences and comfort.

Ohio depicts the tension between young men who went to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who remained behind. What, if any, long-term consequences do you see in that divide?

As I see it, the glorification of the military has been a disaster for the small sliver of society that actually engages in combat. Servicemen and -women are used as props by politicians, the Pentagon, the NFL, Hollywood, just about anybody who wants to sell you a truck or an insurance product. And coming home, they are preyed upon by mortgage and payday lenders, for-profit colleges and every other species of usurious consumer credit; the staggering rates of suicide and homelessness go largely ignored; and, most perniciously, the so-called invisible wounds, the mental health issues, get swept under the rug because our culture doesn't want to grapple with what this experience actually entails. On the civilian side, we are so deeply disconnected from what the military is actually up to that its activities barely register in the news anymore. The divide between civilian and military worlds will only grow worse as a minuscule percentage of mostly working-class people are asked to shoulder the enormous burdens that the current bipartisan foreign policy consensus demands.

What's next for you?

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I'm in this place right now, with a book that, no matter what happens with sales or reviews and all that other glitter, is something I'm deeply proud of, that has this team of incredible people behind it and who believe in it. I don't want to take any of that for granted. --Harvey Freedenberg

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