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August 23, 2018

It’s disconcerting that the two novels I’ve read about places I’ve lived both revolve around terrible and elaborate murder plots.

The first one, Gone Girl, is set in a fictional place called North Carthage that the author, Gillian Flynn, has said is based on the real city of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I lived from first grade through high school and where the movie is set.

The second one, Ohio, is set in a fictional place called New Canaan that is obviously based on the real city of Mount Vernon, where the author, Stephen Markley, grew up and where I’ve lived for more than two decades. Although regular readers of this blog know that my most frequent reaction to living in central Ohio is to sing a few lines of “Don’t Let Me Die Here” by Uncle Bonsai,* I have enough sense of place to dislike the contempt the author of this novel shows for a middle-aged mother who can’t understand how complicated things are beyond her own back yard because she is “a conformist New Canaanite for life” and also enough to like the appreciation he includes for “how many extremely decent people [he’d] known in this place. How much [he’d] taken them for granted.”

It’s difficult to be objective about a novel set in the small town where you live. I don’t know the author, but I do know his mother–she works at Kenyon with me. I’ve never been to any of the bars he describes, but I know where they are. My children went to the high school that provides the focal point for the novel, although they were there more than a dozen years after the author graduated.

Ohio is comprised of four sections, each from the point of view of a different character, with a prelude and a coda. There is a nice series of Rashomon-esque overlappings of the stories in the different sections, and they build towards a climax in the fourth section and a revelation in the coda.

The prelude describes one of the characters as a typical small-town Ohioan:
“this kind of guy you’d find teeming across the country’s swollen midsection: toggling Budweiser, Camels, and dip, leaning into the bar like he was peering over the edge of a chasm, capable of near philosophy when discussing college football or shotgun gauges, neck on a swivel for any pretty lady but always loyal to his true love, most of his drinking done within a mile or two of where he was born, calloused hands, one finger bent at an odd angle from a break that never healed right, a wildly foul mouth…”
But also, the narrator says, he “was in no way standard. He was freewheeling, mule-stubborn, and cunning as a coyote trickster. He had whole oceans inside of him, the wilds of the country, fierce ghosts, and a couple hundred million stars.”
It’s almost as if the author feels the need to get really elaborate with the language in an attempt to differentiate himself from the kind of guys who went to high school with him.

Although the overly-elaborate language continues to crop up frequently throughout the novel, there are also charming local metaphors, like that one character’s “gas gauge had the accuracy of a creationist biology textbook,” a reference to the creationist biology teacher in the Mount Vernon Middle School. The novel’s characters also refer to their town as “The Cane” like locals refer to Mount Vernon as “The Vern.” In a few places, the novel offers stunningly apt language, like: “the cop had grabbed her breast…and she’d cracked him with her elbow. To put a five-foot-nothing woman away for such ‘assault’ was to codify the illegality of dissent.”

Ohio tries to make the case that the troubles of a group of small-town high school has-beens are representative of the troubles of an entire state, even the entire middle of an entire country, but it doesn’t really work. They remain sad little drunks and addicts, no matter how many of the characters make fine speeches like this one: “Life itself has become the final disposable, exploitable resource. We will do anything. Level whole mountains, erase whole species, relocate mighty rivers, burn forests to the ground, change the pH of the water, blanket ourselves in toxic chemistry. It took two million years for our species just to stand up and only five hundred generations to do the rest. Our culture is one of abundance, of entitlement, and basically little else. We’ve put our birthright at risk because we don’t know how to control ourselves.”

The autobiographical tendency of a first novel shows through in more than just the details about the place. It’s also in the fondness of the descriptions and the assumption that other people have experienced what this author did, spending his childhood and young adulthood in the same place: “The sky over the place you were born has a familiarity beyond how the clouds roll in or how the stars wink at you at night. The sky over your home behaves like that moment when, as a parachutist, you pull the rip cord and the heavens snatch you back. Even if you’ve traveled the world and seen better sunsets, better dawns, better storms—when you get that remembered glimpse of the fields and forests and rises and rivers of your home meeting the horizon, your jaw will tighten. The rip cord will yank you back from the descent.”

Ohio certainly gets some of the local rhetoric about “liberals” right:
“You’re really only about the sanctimony. You got this club for right-thinking people, and all you care about is being able to control the way we speak and what opinions we’re allowed to have. In college I had this girl blow up at me for saying ‘colored people’ instead of ‘people of color.’ Thought she was going to have an aneurysm ‘cause I reversed two stupid words. But that’s what liberals are: thought police. So they want to protect a religion like Islam, one that treats women and homos like shit and doesn’t even respect free speech—so you can’t even be consistent there. But when it comes to Christians not wanting guys with dicks in the women’s bathroom? Hell, put those backwards hicks on TV and ridicule them! Call ‘em bigots! Chase ‘em with pitchforks! Do liberals care about the economy being shit, about jobs leaving, about how no one can make it in a business or how much it costs to move to one of their precious cities on the coasts? No, of course not. They care more about the rights of illegal aliens than they do about the heroin those aliens bring in that’s killing every last person we know.”

The murder mystery is chillingly described from different points of view, starting with hints about “The Murder That Never Was” and radiating outward to related secrets and cruelties, until the heart of Ohio’s darkness is fully dissected and readers, along with the characters, understand that “we lack a whole lot of imagination about violence. We want to chalk it up to ‘psychos,’ whatever that means. It’s a notion that feels safe. It’s comforting. But shit like My Lai or Auschwitz or Gnadenhutten—that’s not aberrant. It happens because of what we all have in common. How frail we are. We’re insecure, we’re greedy, we want a promotion at work, we’re afraid of the guy in charge—that’s the stupid, mundane bullshit that makes people do terrible things to each other.”

The title of the novel suggests that fictional events in the small town are representative of events in the entire state. That’s a scary thought, enough to make real-life small-town Ohio residents lock their doors at night.

*There were chickens in the gutters
There was murder in the drive
I was not the first to utter
Let me make it back home dead or alive
Don’t let me die here
If I should die here
Don’t let me lie here
Out here alone
Don’t let me die here
If I should die here
Don’t say good bye here
Send my body home

6 Comments leave one →
  1. the other theo permalink
    August 24, 2018 8:53 pm

    I am reminded of the lyrics to the Tom Waits song “Murder In the Red Barn”

    The sky turned black and bruised
    And we had months of heavy rains
    Now the raven’s nest in the rotted roof
    Of Chenoweth’s old place
    And no one’s asking Cal
    About that scar upon his face
    ‘Cause there’s nothin’ strange
    About an axe with bloodstains in the barn

    There’s always some killin’
    You got to do around the farm
    A murder in the red barn
    Murder in the red barn

    • August 24, 2018 9:06 pm

      oh my. And that, in turn, reminds me of Cold Comfort Farm–there’s something nasty in the…red barn.

      • August 30, 2018 11:06 am

        Re: cruelties that seem crazy but can also be attributed to very mundane bullshit, have you read The Girls by Emma Cline?

        • August 30, 2018 12:08 pm

          No, I have not. I might need to let my brain air out for a while before trying another that might be anything like Markley’s Ohio!

  2. September 8, 2018 8:16 am

    Ohio got a lot of buzz at Book Expo. I’m sure it was fascinating to read it from the perspective of someone who lives where it’s set.

    • September 8, 2018 8:21 am

      I talked to the author’s mother after writing this review, and she pointed out that the place is an amalgam of places. Maybe so, I said, but the one description of coming into town from the west…that is extremely straightforward and detailed description. Anyway, it made me feel a little better to think that it’s not all based on the town where I’m living!

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