Book Thoughts: Ohio by Stephen Markley – Engrossing but Emotionally Exhausting

The novel Ohio by Stephen Markley tells the story oohiof a group of six high school friends over the course of one night approximately ten years after graduation.  The story is told mostly through a series of flashbacks as two of the group travel back to New Canaan, Ohio the same night, though unbeknownst to each other and for very different reasons.  A horrifically violent act occurs on this evening, one that could be read as either a tragedy or long delayed justice depending on your perspective.  Either way, many hardships have befallen this group of friends and not all of them survive the telling of the tale.

The group is in high school on September 11, 2001 and the event, along with the subsequent and seemingly never ending American turmoil – both economic and otherwise – has a direct impact on the lives of these kids and their friendship.  What I really liked about the the main group is that they all felt real to me.  Working class America is often painted in a cliched, unflattering light but Markley breathes life into each of his characters.  Even those I didn’t particularly like rang true to me.  Having grown up in a blue-collar America myself I recognized the characters as similar to people from my own adolescence with very believable and usually empathetic motivations and biases.

The telling of the story jumps from character to character and though some may be put off by this approach I found it very engaging.  One critical part of the story is told through the eyes of different characters and each interpret the events through their own lens of belief and experience. It is this critical event that sort of ruined the book for me. Ruined is probably too strong of a word but it put a damper on my enthusiasm.  Without getting into a lot of detail a terrible event occurs repeatedly during high school.  This event touches, mostly indirectly, each of the main characters in very different ways. The reckoning of this event finally happens at the conclusion of the story with very melodramatic and incredible results. There is a lot of pathology in this story, I guess maybe I felt this one aspect went a little too far and I would have preferred to keep the focus on the six main characters and the very real challenges they faced going into adulthood in an uncertain world where the values and beliefs upon which they were raised teetered towards obsolescence.  Call me crazy but I guess that alone provided enough drama and could have done without some of the more sensational elements to the story.

However, this is a very good book and I do recommend it with some caution. It is not a happy story and in the end even those who survive do so with significant emotional scars. I suppose that’s not unlike life but this small group dealt with so much.  Is it wrong to hope that at least one emerges the better or at least stronger for it?

A final thought:

One of the characters carries with him a picture of his high school friends that was taken during prom night. He refers to this picture often, with his friends captured in that magical moment of youth where the future seems impossibly bright and just within reach. This really struck home with me. I too have a similar picture of my friends from high school. When I look at this picture I can’t help but think about how different life turned out for all of us from that perfect moment in time.  Luckily, none of our fates were catastrophic, just different than what was expected. And that, in some ways, is a tragedy.  Just a much quieter version of one.




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