A Stumble in the Right Direction: On Stephen Markley's "Ohio"
Stephen Markley | Ohio | Simon & Schuster | August 21, 2018 | 496 Pages
The Midwest is funny. It’s an ocean-less land of ebbs and flows, a place where close-knit kindness wrestles with wariness to change. Yet things are changing. Some reviewers of current Midwestern writing claim the Midwest is going through a surge, or resurgence of writing the likes of which we have never seen. Something is happening to the Midwest, but I’d claim it is no resurgence. Rather, it is a rebranding. We as Midwestern readers, teachers, scholars, and citizens are paying attention to the voices of the ignored: the poor, the addicted, people of color, the LGBTQA community, and women of all identifiers. We are living in a time when these voices are no longer considered a subset of Midwestern-ness but recognized as included in the Midwest cultural fabric. Midwestern writers have shifted attentions to these persons, many of whom are members of these previously ignored communities.
Stephen Markley’s first novel, Ohio, is unquestionably part of this rebranding. Set in the desolate semi-ruralness of New Canaan, Ohio, the novel centers around intertwining outcasts who must survive the post-9/11 Midwestern landscape. Men and women who have been forever altered by war, poverty, addiction and a desire to escape comprise a rag-tag band, almost like something out of a zombie film. Yet instead of turning into brain-devouring monsters, the town is out to devour them. Sandwiched between a “prelude” and “coda,” the meat of Ohio is served in three prolonged narratives, which ache for a Midwest that is no longer, but probably never has been, predictable.
Ohio could have easily contained everything that a Midwestern reader or scholar would want in a novel of the region. However, Markley’s freshman venture falls short of being a masterwork of this rebranded age. Its clunky structure and set of fallen American men, rings false to the current shift within Midwestern identities. It is not without quality, though. Markley’s much needed attention to the plight of the veterans of the war on terror is his crowning achievement in the novel, because it views the veteran as a complex human and not just a failed patriotic experiment. However, this does not bode similar for the rest of the novel.
Markley falls prey to a familiar syndrome in regional authorship: over-writing. Ohio is roughly one-hundred-fifty pages longer than needed. One gets the point early in the lengthy paragraphs, but Markley proceeds to pin-a-tail-on-the-region as we are trawled through novella-length chapters. In the final paragraphs of the chapter “Bill Ashcraft and the Great American Thing” Markley offers an explication of Bill’s soused dream of doom. We twist through a vivid portraiture of not only Bill’s blight, but that of a region and a nation, referred to as “inevitable as the next drink he would take.” This is a well-sculpted section of narrative, getting us into the complex and wrecked mind of Bill and his distaste for his past and resignation to a cursed home and selfhood. Yet the reader encounters something that goes a bridge too far: “He could let his memories be the noose from which he’d swing at dusk.” Markley often tails his paragraphs with overly philosophical points, breaking the flow of the narration to pull a reader by the nose, force them across a finish line, and demand a correct reaction. Ohio could have a much more concise narrative that allows for clearer reading of its cultural relevance. Instead we get a novel that begs to be a successor to works like Winesburg, Ohio or Main Street, but lacks its would-be predecessors’ awareness.
Ohio suffers from a shortcoming of many attempts at regional artistry: the fallen-hero starter pack. The characters of Rick Brinklin, Bill Ashcraft, and Stacy Moore suffer from an over-emphasis on their pre-destined tragic nature. For example, the procession for Rick Brinklan, with his superhero-style name (reminding one of Clark Kent) and rise to and fall from grace, is over wrought with its focus wandering nature of a loose American flag. While intended as sincerity to the plight of the dying small town, it comes off as stale. Ohio makes a fine attempt at regionalizing its characters, letting a reader know the economic and cultural complexity of the average Midwesterner, but the minority characters, like “Whitey” (who is African American) and Lisa (who is bi-racial: Asian and white) seem like blips in the importance of the narrative. Lisa Han, in specific, gets the shortest chapter and could have been the most interesting character in the novel. One might like to have seen more of her influence, rather than her presence as a tidy afterword.
Not all is lost about the characters within Ohio. The section “Dan Eaton and the Murder that Never Was” is thoughtful, honest, and dedicated to empathy. Dan, a veteran of the Iraq war, is broken by his Midwestern-ness and his war service. He is a member of the countless Midwestern identities we are taught to ignore; those we politely pretend not to notice. This chapter, split between Iraq and the hometown of New Canaan, gives a reader opportunities otherwise squandered throughout the novel: a veteran (and therefore a reader) must wrestle with their home and what a war has manufactured, how they are honored in parades, but ignored when needing care. There is an anxious Great Gatsby influence of “you can’t go home again”, but it cannot be ignored that this chapter is the best in a group of otherwise disappointing outings. It smacks readers with truth and lets us mull in our embarrassment (even it if tells us to do so). This one-hundred-ten-page chapter could be expanded to a novel of its own and been counted among contemporary books like Nico Walker’s grittily engaging novel, Cherry, yet it sits centered among lesser chapters and may easily be passed over.
Ohio is not a failure, nor is it a literary successor. Its place is in the pantheon of positive steps forward for understanding and rebranding of Midwestern literature from the dominions of old. We cannot look to contemporary literature to Make the Midwest Great Again. We look to contemporary literature and texts like Ohio to make us aware of the people and places we have ignored. Unfortunately, Ohio is a squandered opportunity. While no perfect perspective exists, there are contemporary Midwestern writers, or writers with complex Midwestern identities, producing concise, yet intricate, work. Eve Ewing (Electric Arches and the 1919) and José Olivarez (Citizen Legal) are masterful poets whose lyricism adds intricate stitches to the evolutionary fabric of what it means to be Midwestern. The short stories and novels of Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage and Once Upon a River) and Donald Ray Pollock (Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time) portray small-town Midwest (Michigan and Ohio, respectively) with honest love and skepticism. Their characters fit half-molds and defy your expectations and remind us that we are more than fly-over country.
In the end, Ohio is important, but in the way reading The Faerie Queene is important to reading Richard III: that if you look around, ever so briefly, you can find better contributions to a “movement.”