Stephen Markley has published nonfiction, but his new book, Ohio (S&S, Aug.), is a novel, and it’s so rich in complex storytelling and literary excellence that it’s difficult to believe it’s a fiction debut. Ohio, which takes place in the small Rust Belt town of New Canaan, Ohio, tells the story of a group of high school friends and the changes in their lives during the decade following 9/11.
Four of them, two men and two women, meet up one night in their hometown as adults to revisit old relationships, soothe misunderstandings, and try to make sense of the past. Markley vividly describes both past and present life in New Canaan, a place that to the friends who left is almost unrecognizable upon their return because of the ravages of the Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of opiate addiction. In varying ways, the friends’ lives have all been affected by these events.
Markley, 34, is from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, and now lives in Los Angeles. “I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened,” he says. “Overnight everything was different. There were military recruiters everywhere, and everyone was talking to them about enlisting. Many people I knew signed up.” Markley did not, but he has friends and acquaintances who did and were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the characters in Ohio, Dan Eaton, serves three tours in the military and only quits after losing an eye in a skirmish. The deaths of his comrades are common occurrences during Dan’s service; Markley writes about these deaths so authentically, he could almost have been there fighting alongside Dan. There are brutal passages in Ohio that linger long after the book ends.
“Obviously I care a lot about what’s going to come out in the book,” Markley says. “I did a ton of research. The worst of the violent scenes in the war I had some familiarity with, based on things that happened to people from my hometown. I interviewed the friends of the guys who were killed, and that will stay with me until I die.” He also had an Army veteran fact-check the battle scenes.
Markley says he was once passionately against America’s military involvement in the Middle East. “But you have to hold these two things in your mind: you really hate what’s happening, but at the same time, these are my friends—this is my generation going over there doing this.”
When asked if Ohio is an antiwar book, Markley says, “That’s a difficult question. My aim was to never, ever glorify what’s gone on, to not write a single word that lazily accepts the bromides and clichés, and also to portray the grinding nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, I had to understand that combat binds people in ways that are not typically accessible to civilians. It can be a joyful, thrilling, and meaningful experience, so I tried to capture those contradictions.”
A theme running through Ohio is the primal relationships formed in high school. Of the three best friends described in the book—Bill Ashcraft, Rick Brinklin, and Ben Harrington—only Ashcraft is still alive by the end. Rick, whose patriotism pushed him to enlist after 9/11, is killed in the war, and Ben, a creative spirit who becomes a singer/songwriter, dies of an opiate overdose early on in the book. Throughout the story, Bill, an antiwar activist who never forgave Rick for becoming a soldier, is torn by his conflicted feelings about the friendship. In fact, when the book opens at the memorial for Rick in New Canaan, Bill is nowhere to be found. He can’t bring himself to attend the service but visits Rick’s grave when he returns to New Canaan years later.
Simmering throughout the story are casual mentions of “the murder that never was,” laughed about at parties and in school. The reader is left to ponder with only vague hint of some gruesome adolescent mythology. The origin of this myth isn’t revealed until close to Ohio’s shocking end.
Many characters appear in the book, and even the ancillary ones are brought to life with individual personalities and motives. The characters pair up while in high school, and their girlfriends hasten the heartbeat of the story as they betray one another, break hearts, and demonstrate obsessive sexuality frequently mistaken for love. As time passes, memories of what happened at wanton house parties return with a powerful clarity, accompanied by remorse.
The individual stories of Markley’s characters resonate in the context of the book as a whole. “It’s like finding the ligature between the events we watch on TV screens when we say, ‘Oh, my God,’ and the events that happen closest to us,” Markley says. “The events that define our lifetimes in the personal space and the public space tend to not overlap. If people are cataloguing what they’ve done in their lives, they’re usually not referring to events that occur on the national and global stage, and yet these events are as intimate as divorce, death, or birth.”
Markley attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After graduating, he wrote for the Chicago Tribune’s Redeye magazine. He also wrote a memoir, Publish This Book (Sourcebooks, 2010), and the travelogue Tales of Iceland (Give Live Explore, 2013). “My only ambition was to be a novelist, but things took a different turn for a while,” he says. “I finally applied to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and when I was accepted, I was skeptical. I had already published a book and thought I was there to network and meet people and get a better agent.”
Instead, Markley was “gobsmacked” by how smart and interesting his peers and the faculty were. Studying at Iowa for three years, he learned how to write fiction and screenplays. It took him five years to finish Ohio.
“The narrative complexity was always important to me, where something that happens in the first section should pop back up in the reader’s mind in the fourth section,” Markley says. “It doesn’t all make sense until you arrive at that point.” Citing filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee as inspirations for his style of fiction, which moves back and forth in time, he adds, “You need those flashbacks and previous story lines in order to fulfill what’s happening in the present.”
Markley pauses before describing Ohio: “It’s a murder mystery, a ghost story, an explication of the wars and the recession, the opiate crisis, the constant churn of events of the last two decades. But at some point, I just wanted to tell a good story. I’m a sucker for those. I love the novels that make you just fall away into the people and the place, and every time you set the book down you feel like you’re unplugging yourself from the Matrix.”