by Stephen Markley

Ohio is made up of four stories. Bill Ashcraft bombs across the United States in a drug-addled frenzy, smuggling a mysterious package; Stacey Moore reluctantly agrees to meet her former lover’s mother who traumatized her in her youth; Dan Eaton returns from a tour in Afghanistan to visit the high school sweetheart who left him; and Tina Ross confronts the ex whose abuse led to years of crippling psychological baggage. All four pieces converge on a small, Midwestern town to make an intertwined narrative that’s equal parts murder mystery and social commentary.

The writing’s a mixed bag. Markley shows that he understands some important techniques––how to utilize a fluid, third-person perspective in order to influence pace and flow, for instance––but has difficulties with others, such as writing powerful imagery to make things come alive. However, the main source of my dissatisfaction with Ohio has to do with its scope. Markley tackles huge concepts and issues throughout the book––wide-ranging ones, including sexuality, bigotry, class, zealotry, religion, and nationalism––and, while I wouldn’t suggest his observations are necessarily wrong, they didn’t feel special. When an author tries to undertake the ambitious task of discussing even one of these ideas in a way that feels thoughtful and mature, he usually has to verbalize things that are felt but difficult to articulate before the work successfully resonates, and that didn’t happen here. Because of this, I’m left with a sense that the author did this more out of a perceived necessity, that Ohio had to be profound before it would be noticed or respected, and he tried so hard to force it.

And it’s too bad, because the smaller parts, the bare narratives, were well written, even emotionally felt. This alone could have made Ohio great, but the layers of attempted insight turn it into an unwieldy bulk. I’m learning more and more that it becomes tempting to try and change the world with a novel, but it’s rare for anyone to create something so significant, and difficult, if not impossible, to force it. Sometimes we need to be content with elegant simplicity, and sometimes that’s what actually achieves something meaningful.