OhioOhio by Stephen Markley
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

fulfilling my 2020 goal to read (at least) one book each month that was given to me as a present that i haven’t yet gotten around to reading because i am an ungrateful dick.

it took me six days to get through this book. it took four days just to get past the first fifty pages and two days to get to page 20. In fact, i considered grabbing a different book to meet my “unread present” monthly task, worried that i wouldn’t be able to finish this one’s nearly-500 pages before the end of the month. every time i sat down with it, i’d find myself struggling to make any progress, going over the same sentences, frustrated enough to sharpie-scrawl a snarky “this guy shore does like WORDS!” on a post-it.

here’s the thing about this book: you need to push past the first two sections; the prelude: Rick Brinklan and the Last Lonesome Night and first chapter: Bill Ashcraft and the Great American Thing. after that, it gets better. not that the first parts are bad, but the prose is thick in a particularly exhausting way that comes across as overhandled and self-indulgent.

the prelude is 18-pages sort of omnisciently bird’s-eye panning a crowd gathered for a military funeral procession to honor a fallen local boy, layering the physical descriptions and history of the economically depressed town of new canaan, ohio; the microcosm poster child of middle-American angst, with the interior landscapes of those assembled, digressing from present-day to dip into the past and foreshadow future events. it’s an impressive feat of panoramic writing, the flow establishing the who and the where and all of it, but it’s also a lot of information to process right off the bat, not all of it—strictly speaking—necessary.

rereading that chapter after finishing the novel, certain details spark out of it; little pockets of clarity now that you know as much as the author/om narr about the characters, relationships, events to come, but a lot of it is still extraneous detail, and as an opening to a novel when you don’t yet know what is or is not going to be significant, it’s a lot of information to throw at a reader; it’s setting the stage, yeah, but more like setting it for every play that might ever run.

so, whatever, the first part is a lot and it’s disorienting, but it playfully addresses its own dizzying qualities by basically shrugging, “life, amiright?”:

It’s hard to say where any of this ends or how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear. There is only this wild, fucked-up flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died.

for the most part, the prelude is the “good” kind of confusing—it’s intriguing, it builds a strong sense of atmosphere while playing coy with its flirty smirks of portent. also, it is impossible to not hear rod serling’s voice in your head at the end of it:

So we begin roughly six years after the parade thrown in honor of Corporal Rick Brinklan, on a fried fever of a summer night in 2013. We begin with history’s dogs howling, suffering in every last nerve and muscle. We begin with four vehicles and their occupants converging on this one Ohio town from the north, south, east, and west. Specifically, we begin on a dark country road with a small pickup truck, the frame shuddering, the gas tank empty, hurtling through the night from origins yet unknown.

rereading it now after finishing the whole book, i appreciate it more than i did on my first run-through when i kept slipping off the prose and having to backtrack. my attention span has been garbage since i’ve been marinating in ‘ronatine over here, and his style of writing demands more concentration than i have in the tank right now. and then AFTER the prelude, that first “real” chapter doubled down on the whole “if you want to come into my story you’d better be ready to unpack alla my sentences!” stance, and it is rough.

there are four chonks to this novel, each with a different character more-or-less at the center. it’s not POV’d by them, but it sort of channels their energy, if that makes sense, and this first one swirls around bill, a bombastic, verbose, unreliable, drugged to the gills, self-aggrandizing fellow whose muddle of thoughts can be hard to follow through the claustrophobic press of his memories and visions and assorted internal monologues:

Even after all this, there was always a reason to stand again. To summon the courage to live and to be alive. To rage against the faceless entropy, the savage logic of accumulation that would return them all to exile, that aimed to strip them bare of everything, every place, and every person they’d ever loved. To find hope in defiance, in the subterranean fire, and to always and forever endure the Truth and struggle to extinction.

He stumbled on in his dreams, mourning the rovers and fields of his homeland. He saw it burning in blue fire, and he prayed for the strength to defend it, to fight for it, to bring it back alive.

hard dislike.

it’s a lot of chewy sentences, bristling with clauses, sacrificing clarity to the adjective gods until you want to scream “kill your goddamn darlings, markley!” it’s altogether too word-rich an opener. some of his poetic indulgences do land perfectly, Tupperware-looking white people, or being on valium and feeling like sexy melted marshmallow, but so much of it just feels…crowded.

He was pretty fucking drunk, which for him was saying something. He was also still pretty wired from the acid. These tabs lasted For. Fuck. Ing. Ev. Er. You really had to be prepared to step into another dimension, accept the deregulations of that particular nuthouse, accept that you were never coming back, and imagine life under these new brain-bled, torch-fever-fed circumstances.

and while i’m thinking of it, ALL of the original song lyrics are ppbblltt.

after bill’s segment, the story flows much better, but i didn’t know that at the time, and i dreaded picking it back up every morning. i’m ordinarily a better reader than i have been lately, but i wonder if other readers also felt smothered by the prose of the early bits and gave up before the story really takes off. i’m not sure how well it would have worked, structure-wise, because this novel is an intricate jenga of timelines—with their overlapping events, contrasting memories and alternate angles, in addition to the reveals of the assorted secrets, lies, and entanglements, but it might have been more friendly to have a different character’s chonk come first.

ENNYWAY, after a rough start, i really enjoyed this—it’s suspenseful and absorbing but also deeply uncomfortable—there’s a lot that’s brutal here, including descriptions of war violence, sexual assault and a highly squirmy cutting scene that i still can’t get out of my head. gah.

it’s the kind of book that would benefit from a full re-read, but OOF, not with this shitty brain.


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