Stephen Markley’s first fiction book, OHIO, is definitely not for the faint of heart. Having written previous non-fiction books, Markley undertakes an ambitious project writing about a rural, Northeaster, Ohio town suffering from the Great Recession, the opioid crisis and the after-effects of 9/11.
OHIO centers around the story of four high school friends who are reunited a decade after their graduation. It also circles around the story of one of those friends who was killed in Iraq. In fact, the entire beginning of the book is one long running commentary on the funeral parade for this man which occurs months after his actual burial, and which features an empty casket on loan from Wal Mart. There were many part of this exegesis that reminded me of Garrison Keillor and his Tales of Lake Wobegon. The writing flows with excess and verbiage that is both descriptive and, well, over-the-top. To a certain extent, though not as talented, it also reminds of William Faulkner who could describe a scene to death.
After this opening finally ends, Markley presents us with characters that are quite nearly a stereotype for small, Midwestern, rural towns. I should know, I live in one and I’ve known many from the area from which Markley is drawing his inspiration. In fact, Markley was reared in such a small town very much like the one he is describing – but he has been living in L.A. for many years.
OHIO is an examination of the fervor that occurred in many small towns after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Smelling blood, military recruiters swarmed into these towns whipped up “patriotism” like a spell across the land. Those who were poor, bored or looking for a way out of these towns, eagerly bought the lies that these recruiters were dishing out like candy. As a result, the Midwest now if faced with higher numbers of veteran homelessness, drug addition to the crisis point and crime, which is needed to feed their addictions.
This is a very dark, very descriptive – overly so – account of war, drugs, addiction and despair.
However, while I like the premise of the book, my criticism is two-fold. Markley claims that the book is an accurate description of the war battles and recruitment during this time – he also admits that he “once was very anti-war.” His anti-war sentiments don’t come through for me in OHIO. His remarks about why he is not as adamantly “anti-war,” disturb me on a very deep level. Americans only now are beginning to look at 9/11 as “history” rather than current events. Any time an author writes about it, their own biases and leanings are revealed. The fact is, many – too many – young men were lied to, sold a bill of goods that were rotten and the “war in Iraq” was nothing except a military exercise to build the American Empire. You can not talk about the “rust belt” of America without directly talking about the massive loss of jobs, the cut back in education funding, the lack of medical treatment – ALL courtesy of the American government. The darkness here, in my mid-west, is very real. The opioid crisis is staggering. But Markley’s views are merely more fiction added to the mix, militarily accurate according to the recruiters with whom he spoke, but we all know how truthful they can be. For the record, I’m the wife of COL (ret) so I’m very familiar with the military, the war and the lies that were told after 9/11.
Secondly, one complaint that I have regarding Southern writers is that they use thirty words to describe what could be brilliantly written in ten. Markley writes more like a southern writer than one from the mid-west where words never are wasted and verbosity is, quite nearly, considered a sin. This book is too long, too drawn out, too much of everything that is not quality. Readers who think that the book is dark would see a more fitting picture of the Rust Belt if they didn’t have to wade through the unnecessary muck. I wanted to scream: “edit, Edit, EDIT.” Sadly, there was none.
If you want to read an astounding account of what reality is like in a rural rust belt town, I suggest instead that you read “Fast Falls the Night” by Julia Keller. It also is a very disturbing read but one based on fact, expertly written and staggering in its accurate description of what it really is like to live in such a town as mine.
OHIO was given to me by #Netgalley in exchange for a review of the book.