The novelist Stephen Markley, author of the new book “Ohio”, is new to me.  “Ohio” describes life in a small town in Northeastern Ohio, where all the industries have left, drugs are rampant and no one has much to do.

Markley’s novel revolves around the lives of  a number of high school students, mainly juniors and seniors; he focuses mainly on the “popular” kids, circling around the athletes in the high school, heroes in many a small town. It interested me that Markley chooses to write about the “in” crowds, as so many novels have been written from the points of view of the outsiders, the artistic kids, those on the fringe of things in high school, those who usually leave and go to the big cities of America where they find their niches, identities,  places in the world. Although “Ohio” includes some people on the outside or fringe of the “in” groups, they’re mostly less relevant to the novel than the others.

Markley goes back and forth between describing the parties, in particular, and the friendships/alliances between and amongst a small number of the popular, in high school, and then approximately ten years later, when several of them wander back to this small town for a variety of reasons and bump into/reeoncounter each other. Decades ago, Ralph Keyes wrote a splendid book called “Is There Life After High School?”, in which he posits that usually the most popular kids, those who make everyone else miserable, peak in high school and go down from there: it appears that Markley mostly agrees. “Ohio” is a very, very dark book, prone to melodrama, but the author writes with such passion and force that I got lost in the magnificence of his writing itself as well as in the plot.

Of the jocks described in this novel, one is liberal politically, one will go to Iraq and die there, a classic American patriot, or so he thinks; one will become a singer-songwriter of minor acclaim, and one is a true sexual predator of the worst ilk.  Of the first three, who are the best guy friends, two die (war; overdose) and the predator will, in the end, be sliced up, chopped up, and burned to death by his high school girlfriend, in an act of such breathtaking revenge for his repeated rapings of her and forcing her into gang rape situations with his friends–she’s only in the ninth grade when all that happens.  And the endings of several other “popular” girls are pretty awful, too, but the author will trace most of their bizarre adult behavior–living in lousy rented apartments, doing drugs, getting fat, etc.–to the sexual predator described above, with some real conviction and possibility. Two people, the mostly narrator (the liberal jock) and a formerly popular girl, now lesbian and professionally doing well, begin to put all the pieces together.

Almost all of “Ohio” takes place at night, giving a grim surrealism to the novel; the author has clearly been influenced by writers such as William Burroughs, and Markley’s occasional flights of fancy with his writing are often more interesting than some of the plot.  But Markley’s take
on America’s lost people in lost small towns is excellent, probing and astute, and we encounter hopeless people only ten years out of high school, mostly lured back “home” as they can’t/don’t make it away.  I’ve noticed myself how high school experiences can sear many people for life,
and “Ohio’s” exceptionally fine with that concept.  The sex and drugs in “Ohio” are sensitively rendered, as are the expectations of the “popular” girls (whose popularity parallels which jock boyfriends they date).  “Ohio” is a darkly dystopian novel, probably a bit excessive and/or prone
to melodrama, but it is also a compelling read on what’s happened to so many small towns in America, and to their hapless and hopeless young.

–Daniel Brown

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