Yes, Virginia, High School Can Scar You for Life: Ohio by Stephen Markley

Originally posted September 2018

Stephen Markley, if you are out there somewhere, know that I couldn’t even think of starting Woodward’s book until I finished yours.

Yes, Ohio is that good.

A fiction debut for Markley (score another one for the Iowa Writers Workshop, by the way), Ohio is a take on the 20-teens midwestern landscape. A once burgeoning Ohio town, New Caanan has fallen on hard times as manufacturers have pulled up stakes, leaving generations of blue collar proud residents to fend for themselves. Jobs aren’t the only things lost as families try to scrape by and the opioid crisis plants both feet solidly in their territory.

One by one, the author introduces us to a bevy of characters that share a past — that of the early 2000s and high school, when pretty much everything was fun and games (Football! Parties! Dances! Boys! Vicky’s Diner!) until 9/11. There’s Dan Eaton, a three-tour, Purple Heart vet back to see an old girlfriend. And Bill Ashcroft, the anti-establishment, anti-war bro turned addict, alcoholic and mysterious package runner. There’s Stacey Moore, back home from grad school to meet her first (and long since ex-) girlfriend’s mother at her request. And finally, Tina Ross, the youngest member of a close-knit high school clan that has returned to The Cane to confront her demons, or more precisely, her demon. Singular. And truly, truly awful.

Separately, these four converge on their old hometown on a single night, close to 15 years after high school and 10 since the death of one of theirs — Rick Brinklan, a high school football star-turned-Marine corporal. Along with Rick, there is another entire set of characters that link Dan, Stacey, Bill and Tina together, including Lisa Han, Ben Harrington, Doug Beaufort, Hailey Kowalczyk and Kaylyn Lynn. And each one of their stories is Tragic with a capital T. No one escapes New Caanan unscathed.

Markley does a profoundly impressive job painting such well-rounded portraits of these kids that it is very easy to imagine them into your own high school existence. We all knew the jock, and the rebel, and the asshole, and the super straight-laced girl that wasn’t so straight-laced after all. We all were immature, we all were in love with the right person for the wrong reasons. Or the wrong person …. for the wrong reasons. We all kept secrets from our parents, scared to death they wouldn’t approve of the person we knew we were becoming. We all kept secrets from our friends, scared they wouldn’t want to follow on the path we wanted to take.

And because we get to know them so intimately as high schoolers, it makes their sad or difficult stories in adulthood that much more Tragic. It makes Rick’s dad Marty’s job as a cop so much more haunting. It makes this books ending so painful and eloquent and beautiful all at once. On love, one of the characters reveals, ” …the most astonishing gift on consciousness was also our tragedy, our cliche, our great curse: Love’s absolute refusal to ever surrender.” And of death, we’re left with, ” But what you can never know, what you coule never have believed or hoped to believe on the long and staggering journey home, is that this abyss is holy all the same. You understand even the void is impermanent, that nothingness is unstable and bound, practically galloping, toward new creation on foreign shores.”

Damn, Markley, now that’s going to be on my brain forever and a day.

An excellent, highly recommended read, great for book club convo and really just beautifully written.

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