A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Ohio by Stephen Markley - Feature and Review


The debut of a major talent; a lyrical and emotional novel set in an archetypal small town in northeastern Ohio—a region ravaged by the Great Recession, an opioid crisis, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—depicting one feverish, fateful summer night in 2013 when four former classmates converge on their hometown, each with a mission, all haunted by the ghosts of their shared histories.
Since the turn of the century, a generation has come of age knowing only war, recession, political gridlock, racial hostility, and a simmering fear of environmental calamity. In the country’s forgotten pockets, where industry long ago fled, where foreclosures, Walmarts, and opiates riddle the land, death rates for rural whites have skyrocketed, fueled by suicide, addiction and a rampant sense of marginalization and disillusionment. This is the world the characters in Stephen Markley’s brilliant debut novel, Ohio, inherit. This is New Canaan.
On one fateful summer night in 2013, four former classmates converge on the rust belt town where they grew up, each of them with a mission, all of them haunted by regrets, secrets, lost loves. There’s Bill Ashcraft, an alcoholic, drug-abusing activist, whose fruitless ambitions have taken him from Cambodia to Zuccotti Park to New Orleans, and now back to “The Cane” with a mysterious package strapped to the underside of his truck; Stacey Moore, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting the mother of her former lover; Dan Eaton, a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried to forget; and the beautiful, fragile Tina Ross, whose rendezvous with the captain of the football team triggers the novel’s shocking climax.
At once a murder mystery and a social critique, Ohio ingeniously captures the fractured zeitgeist of a nation through the viewfinder of an embattled Midwestern town and offers a prescient vision for America at the dawn of a turbulent new age.



OhioOhio by Stephen Markley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ohio by Stephen Markley is a 2018 Simon & Schuster publication.

New Canaan, Ohio

The Rust Belt-

By now the plight of those living in a what is commonly known as ‘The Rust Belt", is etched into our consciousness. A marginalized area simmering in hostility, hammered by a stubborn economic depression, and an unprecedented epidemic opiate crisis.

This atmosphere is more in the forefront than in the background as Stephen Markley captures the mentality of those born and raised in this environment. Four high school friends, all of whom took a different path in life, all of them haunted by actions, decisions, and memories of the past, compounded by their current day realities, return home at the same time, with shocking results.

The novel begins in 2007 with the funeral of former football star Rick Brinklan, killed in Iraq. This surreal parade sets the stage quite effectively as the author leads the reader quickly to 9/11- the event that cements a ‘before and after’ time frame for our main characters.

Separated into four segments, giving each character the power of the first person narrative to describe their youthful experiences, the angst of needing to belong, the compulsion to express individuality, or their forced conformity.

All four voices are connected by their upbringing, their history, and their knowledge of certain crimes, their mistakes and regrets.

Their shared memories, especially centered around rumors of and evidence of certain events that took place in high school, still binds them. But, the unspoken jealousies and competitions build to a point that eventually boils over, the consequences that follow them into adulthood, and will eventually bring terrible tragedy, which now begs for justice.

This is a very impressive debut novel. It is thought provoking, with very strong characterizations, and vivid depictions of time and place. It is, however, very laborious, and verbose, perhaps in need of a more aggressive editor. Despite some clunky sections, the author’s prose is magnificent.

In my opinion the mystery is not the most prominent element of this book even though it is firmly placed in that category. In fact, I wondered at times, if the author intended to write a true mystery or was using it as a means to an end, with a fictionalized social commentary being the ultimate goal.

Yet, at the end of the day, there is a mystery, one that took me by surprise, the outcome of which never really crossed my mind, as my attention was diverted by the rich characterizations. The story eventually merges the four individual segments with a surprising turn of events.

Some of the vignettes, if you will, reminded me of many typical small town scenarios, not just those who have come under such intense scrutiny as of late. I live in a small town in Texas, surrounded by even smaller towns, some which have dried up the same way those in the heavily maligned rust belt. Factories closed, drugs took over, bored teens did what bored teens do, creating cliques and fiefdoms, and in a football obsessed mindset- similar crimes are committed, overlooked and unreported. Some are trapped in a vicious, never ending cycle going back generations with no end in sight, and others got away only to find themselves right back where they started, or curiously enough, unable to find contentment in any other way of life.

Stiff conservative values, hard wired patriotism, and God and country still rule in the hearts and minds of small town America- and God help you if you go against the grain with sexual identity or liberal leanings. My point being that the rust belt in not unique in this. My next point is – don’t stereotype- of presume this is a searing portrait of the entire state of Ohio- despite the book’s title.

The story takes a very long and rambling way around to linking the threads together, perhaps too long if the goal was to keep the reader invested in the mystery elements.

But, if you want to get a very realistic look at the issues that still very much divide our country, dissect the long road leading to this point; if you want to see why there is such a fierce loyalty to this way of life, or if you just enjoy strong, well- drawn characters, placed in a dense and gritty atmosphere- and don’t mind depending on those characters to carry you through to the ultimate moment of truth- then the mystery, which doesn’t come on strong until the bitter end, will be worth the extended wait.

The book is a riveting combination of narratives, quite absorbing, albeit violent and pretty darned bleak and melancholy.
So, my only caution to readers is to keep in mind that small towns everywhere suffer some of these same plights, these exact same attitudes, and personalities, but that is not a rebuke of all the residents, or the state in which they are located and hope the urge to group everyone together in the blame game will be avoided.

Wisely, the author added diversity to the story, which hopefully will help to combat strict preconceived notions about rural or blue- collar areas. However, it would serve us all well, from small communities to large cities, from the east to the west, and all points in between, to step outside our own insular world to consider the challenges and fears of others. Compassion may begin at home, but it doesn’t have to stop there - it is limitless.





Stephen Markley's debut novel "Ohio" will be published in August of 2018 by Simon and Schuster.

Markley is the author of the memoir "Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book" (2010) and the travelogue "Tales of Iceland."

His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Slate.com, The Iowa Review, Chicago's RedEye, The Week, The Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, Weber: A Study of the Contemporary West, and the Chicago Reader. He’s also the author of the e-reader short "The Great Dysmorphia: An Epistemological View of Ingesting Hallucinogenic Mushrooms at a 2012 Republican Presidential Debate."

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