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Table of Contents
About The Book
“A wild, angry, and devastating masterpiece of a book.” —NPR
“[A] descendent of the Dickensian ‘social novel’ by way of Jonathan Franzen: epic fiction that lays bare contemporary culture clashes, showing us who we are and how we got here.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A book that has stayed with me ever since I put it down.” —Seth Meyers, host of Late Night with Seth Meyers
One sweltering night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeastern Ohio.
There’s Bill Ashcraft, a passionate, drug-abusing young activist whose flailing ambitions have taken him from Cambodia to Zuccotti Park to post-BP New Orleans, and now back home with a mysterious package strapped to the undercarriage of his truck; Stacey Moore, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting her family and the mother of her best friend and first love, whose disappearance spurs the mystery at the heart of the novel; Dan Eaton, a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried desperately to forget; and the beautiful, fragile Tina Ross, whose rendezvous with the washed-up captain of the football team triggers the novel’s shocking climax.
Set over the course of a single evening, Ohio toggles between the perspectives of these unforgettable characters as they unearth dark secrets, revisit old regrets and uncover—and compound—bitter betrayals. Before the evening is through, these narratives converge masterfully to reveal a mystery so dark and shocking it will take your breath away.
THE COFFIN HAD NO BODY in it. Instead, the Star Legacy 18-Gauge Platinum Rose casket, on loan from the local Walmart, had only a large American flag draped across its length. It rode down High Street on a flatbed trailer, tugged along by a Dodge RAM 2500 the color of an overripe cherry. A blast of early winter cold had invaded October, and a hard, erratic current of air tore across New Canaan with the unpredictability of a child’s tantrum. One second the breeze was calm, tolerable, and the next a frigid banshee shriek would rip across High Street, chilling the assembled, scattering leaves and loose litter, drowning out petty chatter, and carrying voices off to the sky. Before the truck and its cargo left the fire station, the staging ground for all of New Canaan’s parades from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July, no one had bothered to secure the flag, and as the show casket reached downtown, a gust of wind finally took it. The Stars and Stripes flapped, undulated, parachuted through this mad breeze, as several sorrowful gasps issued from the crowd. Nothing could be done. Each time it began to drift back to earth, another gust would catch it, toss it, bear it aloft. The flag made its way to the square, where it finally snagged on the gnarled branches of an oak tree and shuddered there.
The procession for Corporal Richard Jared Brinklan had originally been scheduled for Memorial Day. KIA in Iraq in the final days of April, the timing made sense, but then an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death delayed the body’s return. Once that wrapped up, the display of hometown pride was planned for the same July day as the funeral. Unfortunately, a monstrous summer thunderstorm overran that afternoon. A flash flood of the Cattawa River and a tornado warning kept all of New Canaan indoors. At that point Rick’s family did not much care whether there was a parade or not, but the mayor, sensing the electoral hazard of failing to honor the third son New Canaan had lost to the current conflicts, insisted on scheduling a parade for October. People tended to roll their eyes at this small-town politicking and then go out and vote based on it anyway.
The town was sleeved in red, white, and blue. Small flags spaced every fifteen feet in the grass-lined High Street for over a mile leading to the square. Flags in windows, as car decals, clutched in children’s pink hands and adults’ scummy gloved ones, even drawn with red, white, and blue frosting onto an enormous sheet cake being sold by the slice outside Vicky’s All-Night Diner. The road’s trees, rich with autumn reds and yellows, clashed brilliantly against the gunmetal sky. Meanwhile, the wind tried its goddamnedest to emancipate the leaves of these quaint elms, alders, and oaks. Two New Canaan Police Department cruisers led the way, lights silently flickering, an errant woot from the sirens every few hundred yards, followed by the sheriff’s cars, the SUVs, and every other vehicle the police department could spare for the son of one of its own: Chief Investigator Marty Brinklan’s youngest boy. Volunteers on motorcycles followed, some driven by vets, but really anyone in town who owned wheels was there. American flags and POW-MIA banners flapped from the backs of the bikes. Following this long hodgepodge of vehicles crawling slowly down the city’s main thoroughfare came the flatbed with its flagless coffin. Some stepped out of their homes that bordered the east side of town only to scramble inside after the casket passed. Some huddled in Ohio State jackets and New Canaan Jaguar sweatshirts. Some pulled bright blue GORE-TEX hoods around their heads, tugged toboggan caps low, and many, misjudging the weather, let their ears turn bright red and painful to the touch. One questionable soul wore nothing but disintegrating jeans and a No Fear shirt with the sleeves cut off, exposing arms inked solid with tattoos. Some held toddlers or gently rocked bundled babies in strollers. Older children stood with their parents, twiddly and bored, shifting weight anxiously from one leg to the other. Unsupervised kids chased each other through the legs of the adults, oblivious to the sorrow around them. The teenagers, of course, treated the whole affair like a social function (as Rick himself might have once). The girls flirted with the boys, while those boys waited to be chosen. They talked too rapidly, they laughed too loudly, they carved their initials into trees with pocketknives. There was a man wearing a Desert Storm Veteran ball cap talking to the lone TV reporter who’d made the long trip from Columbus. There was a girl holding a piece of cardboard that said simply #25. Another held a poster board that read: We LOVE U Rick!!!
They worked at Owens Corning as engineers and data specialists, at the Jeld-Wen plant as general labor manufacturing doors and windows, in the antique and clothing shop on the square, using a doming block and hammer to mold Buffalo nickels into ornamental buttons for purses and shirts. They worked at Kroger and on road crews and at First-Knox National Bank and the local DMV, which ran with such brisk efficiency that wait times rarely exceeded five minutes. They worked at the county hospital, the town’s largest employer, as nurse practitioners, doctors, janitors, technicians, physical therapists, and physician’s assistants—as private practices found it harder to get by, the hospital bought them up until the entire county relied on this single entity for its medical care. Many worked in the vast network of old age homes, retirement communities, hospices, and of course a few worked in mortuary services and were not thrilled by Walmart’s intrusion into the casket business. The residents of New Canaan owned the county’s lone liquor store, veterinary practices, a sporting goods store that made seventy percent of its sales on guns and ammunition. They were psychologists and podiatrists. They drove trucks for potato chip suppliers. They worked as health inspectors. They built porches, installed hot tubs, fixed sewer systems, and landscaped. Some had tried to flip houses. One of them, age twenty-three, had taken a loan from a bank, then another from his father, and was now looking up bankruptcy law online. Some worked for New Canaan’s only newspaper, hands going carpal tunnel today trying to collect quotes about Rick. One of them coached the high school football team and his praise for Rick was an indomitable waterfall (One of the finest young men I’ve ever coached selfless dedicated best teammate I’ve ever seen cared about every guy from the quarterback to the last guy off the bench), an Appalachian-accented wind. Those who’d lost children thought of the ways they’d been taken: leukemia and hunting accidents, suicides and car wrecks, liver tumors and drowning, cars that overheated in the summer sun with rescue just a few feet away, standing in line at the dry cleaners. Some had terrible dreams and woke frequently to sweat and confusion. Others shot up, showered, and went to work.
Their children went to one of the six elementary schools, the middle school, and New Canaan High. Many of the adults had known one another since that first awkward day when they were dropped off at preschool, and in tears, clung to their mother’s skirt or jeans or overalls. Some grew up and became teachers at these very same schools. One remembered Rick as a funny little loudmouth always rubbing zitty cheeks. Another recalled the card Rick had given her on the last day of seventh-grade pre-algebra. On the front: Teachers Deserve A+s Too! Inside, a coupon for a free Little Caesars cheesy bread. Another thought of a paper Rick had written for Honors History, which this teacher still, on the day of the parade, was convinced the star football player had plagiarized.
There were former cheerleaders and volleyball players and stars of the girls’ basketball team. One still held the record for points and assists, for three years using her ample rear end to back defenders down all the way to the basket. Some were loaded from a breakfast of Stoli and orange juice, a few kept watch for estranged children they saw only at public gatherings, and one twisted a cheek-shredding ring on his finger: it depicted the archangel Michael, commander of the Army of God, blowing his horn and leading a battalion of angels into battle, all crammed into the hard gray metal of this one enormous ring. Some dreamed of making a home in California or vanishing down southern highways or pointing a finger at a map and lighting out for wherever the digit landed, while others lived on the beneficence of an SSDI check. Many were at the cellar floor of the country’s economic ladder.
A few, who’d grown up playing among the wreckage of salvage cars on a family property known as Fallen Farms, cooked methamphetamines and sold pills at a markup. They shot at bottles and old engine blocks and the kick of the weapons would dispel ancient anxieties for seconds at a time. Some made money hocking stolen merch on craigslist, laptops practically attached to their hips. Others posted to Internet message boards about the coming invasion of babies from lesser civilizations and white people’s last chance to turn the tide.
Many came home to find an orange Sherriff’s Notice on their door. These were the days of foreclosures and evictions from one end of the county to the other. Some of the homes the banks took had the usual roaches and water stains but many had skylights and plasma TVs. They left value behind: gas grills, furniture, jewelry, vinyl albums, Beanie Babies, plaques with framed prayers, frozen steaks, the entire Bible on a set of CDs, bikes, and one eccentric left thirty-odd ducks penned in beside a small backyard pond. Some people just vanished, whole families blinked out of existence like the Rapture. Some moved in with parents, siblings, or friends, some into motel rooms and cars. Others had to be chased out of the city park or the Walmart lot. Marty Brinklan would tell you why serving an eviction was his most hated responsibility: how hurt and angry and truly terrified a man or woman who lost a home could be. One old man, widowed, well past his working years, had fallen into Marty’s arms in tears, no dignity left, begging him not to do this because he had nowhere to go. Marty would see that guy everywhere now, trucking around his worldly possessions in a shopping bag that said BIG SALE on the side.
A few in attendance saw something gravely wrong with the whole scene, while others twirled those small flags in cold, chapped hands and felt paroxysms of pride and ownership and faith. A ceremony for a fallen soldier was an opportunity to decorate and reinvent the town as its residents wished it to be. Cradled in the state’s northeast quadrant, equidistant from the cities of Cleveland and Columbus, one could envision her home as an imaginative space, a specific notion of a white-picket-fenced (and let’s face it, white-skinned) Ohio. Far from the redlined black neighborhoods in Akron or Toledo or Cincinnati or Dayton, distant from the backwoods vein of Appalachia running along the borderlands of Kentucky and West Virginia, most of the parade’s attendees clung to a notion of what their town was, what values it embodied, what hopes it carved out, though by 2007 its once-largest employers, a steel tube plant and two plate glass manufacturers, were over twenty years gone and most of the county’s small farms had been gobbled up by Smithfield, Syngenta, Tyson, and Archer Daniels Midland. Many of those residents who had not been born in this country but who’d made their way from Kuala Lumpur or Jordan or Delhi or Honduras waved those flags the hardest when the casket went by.
Nothing spoke to this imagined homeland quite like the 2001 football team. Led by Rick’s fearsome running game, a reliable quarterback, and the merciless hits of one particular linebacker who everyone thought would make it to the NFL, it was New Canaan’s first team ever ranked in the state. In a community of roughly fifteen thousand, the high school always held on to its D-1 designation by a thread, but as Coach often pointed out to boosters, no one moved there. The athletes all came from the same pool of peewee football kiddos, and if a couple weak years went by where the teens were more into skateboarding, you were screwed.
Most of the famed team was there that day, except the reliable quarterback, who’d died of a heroin overdose half a year earlier. He simply cooked up too much, shot it into his knee pit on the stoop of his stepfather’s trailer, and that was the ball game. One minute he was admiring icicle-mimicking strings of Christmas lights, the next, he slumped into a puddle, face smacking its mirror image. As the casket passed them by, many remembered how Rick and the quarterback used to wrestle in the locker room before games to get hyped. Pure horseplay, but they would slam each other violently into lockers. Slick with anxious sweat, wearing nothing but a jockstrap, his ass like two flower bulbs spilling out of white elastic, Rick would grapple with the QB until their skin was pink from meat slapping meat, the cheers and hoots of their teammates egging them on. Then they’d all strap their pads tight, punch lockers, smack helmets, and storm across the parking lot to the field. They’d fought as brothers to earn the enormous plaque that still graced the glass display case at the entrance of the high school, yet few of them had the skill or the grades to make it to the next level. Eighteen years old and no more Friday nights under stadium lights, pep rallies, bonfires, or freshman girlfriends. No more dances, forum shows, homecomings, or raucous trips to Vicky’s Diner, slinging fries at each other across the booths. Now they worked at Cattawa Construction, at Jiffy Lube, as line cooks at Taco Bell, as real estate brokers. They spent paychecks quickly, smacked pool balls or blew raspberries on their babies’ bellies. They recounted long-ago football games, which seemed to produce hard evidence that they’d once been something. Many suffered from lovely high-gloss dreams where they were back on the field. A few lived with constant sub-audible guilt about what they’d gotten up to with the girl they called Nasty Tina.
Rick’s short life had intersected with a great many people in this place, partly due to his father’s status in the police department and the salon his mother owned, but his family went back generations in New Canaan. His mother could trace her ancestry all the way back to the first settlers who’d come to farm land grants after the Revolutionary War. One great-grandfather had emigrated from Bavaria, and he and his people brought with them glass-cutting skills that would eventually become Chattanooga Glass. Another great-grandfather made a living as a canal worker in Coshocton County, moving timber through the locks. Rick had farmers and bankers in his lineage, factory workers at Cooper-Bessemer, which eventually became Rolls-Royce. The parade-goers knew Rick from when he and his friends were just little ones, hellions around town, always running off to play with grape jelly still smeared on their faces. They’d watched him grow up. They’d watched him crash through defensive lines. They’d watched him play a sexy Amish farmer in the senior skit. Five young women could call Rick their first kiss. One had been paired with him for Seven Minutes in Heaven, and in the closet he’d drooled all over her chin and grabbed a handful of everything there was to grab. Another got so keyed up after kissing him beneath the bleachers at an eighth-grade basketball game that it was all she thought about for the next month.
Many were hungover from toasting Rick in the Lincoln Lounge the night before. Over cheap beer and well drinks, they shared classic stories, brave recollections, and dark musings. The rumors, the gossip, the urban legends ran wild. New Canaan had a curse, their peers decided. Their generation, the classes of the first five years of the infant millennium, they were all stepping through life with a piano suspended above them and bull’s-eyes on the crowns of their skulls. This was different from (but probably a companion to) the garbled small-town myth known as “The Murder That Never Was.” Whoever came up with that particular phrase wasn’t much with grammar, but it stuck nevertheless, debated and ruminated in bars, salons, and diners, sometimes whispered, sometimes not—particularly that night when the speculation was belted out across the dim pall of the Lincoln. The Murder That Never Was held that there was someone who went missing or not, who died accidentally or not, who was gruesomely murdered or not, who faked his own death or not, who made off with a heist or not, who burned rubber out of town laughing like a demon or not. Now in the light of day, in the queasy suffocation and sluggish eternity of a hangover, how silly that all sounded.
The driver pulled his truck to a stop, bringing the flatbed in front of a stage that had been borrowed from the high school and erected beneath the square’s hundred-year oaks. On that stage, Rick’s parents and his brother, Lee, stood among a scrum of friends, family, the mayor, the sheriff. “Amazing Grace” played over a jury-rigged PA, and as the final chords reverberated, the pastor of the First Christian Church, where Rick and Lee had so frequently fidgeted, farted, and fought with each other every Sunday (two of the most disruptive kids to ever grace the pews, according to most), delivered the opening prayer. “Jesus, take your son Rick into your arms, and give his family and friends the strength to endure this loss,” he said. Boilerplate stuff.
Following that, four people were to speak that day.
One of them, Rick’s high school girlfriend, would never make it to the mic. Kaylyn Lynn was so stupefyingly high nothing seemed to matter at all. The wind whipped unwashed hair about her pretty face and bit through Rick’s football jersey (#25), which he’d given to her after the team banquet his senior season. She hated that Rick’s parents had asked her to speak. There was no fairy tale here. They broke up the summer after senior year. She basically cut out Rick’s heart and ate it in front of him. Pawned the engagement ring he tried to give her. Fucked his friends. Told him how much she loved him only to make sure he’d never really leave her. The pastor’s prayer wound to a close, and she watched a crow pick apart a piece of the flag cake selling outside of Vicky’s. There was red and blue frosting all over the bird’s beak as it dug into this treat smeared across the asphalt. Ill with guilt, when her time came, Kaylyn simply kept her eyes lowered and gave Rick’s parents a panicked shake of her head. Hid her high with bereavement. She rattled and sucked on her inhaler, her eyes as vivid as Cassiopeia.
Marty Brinklan stepped to the microphone, stroking his bleach-white mustache, his face weary, good marble covered by bad clay. He looked to his wife sitting in a metal folding chair, squeezing a handkerchief the color of a wet plum and staring catatonically at the ground.
“Husband, Christian, patriot, public servant,” said Marty. His eyes flitted up from the piece of paper he gripped, peeked at his friends and neighbors. “But most importantly, once you’re a father . . . that’s what you learn about being a father: it becomes the first thing you are, and everything else had better make way for it. Once you’re a father,” he repeated.
Marty wanted to be done with the public part of this. He was good at quarantining his grief, saving it for appropriate moments when he could have it to himself, take it out to tenderly care for like an antique pistol. He wasn’t sleeping or eating well or taking care of himself. Hell, he’d even taken a couple of drinks. The first day of his workweek he’d gotten a call about a nineteen-year-old girl, dead of an overdose, found facedown in an overflowing toilet. A gruesome scene. Then he’d served an eviction for one of Rick’s former teammates from the football team, a wide receiver who wept and cussed him out until Marty found himself putting a hand on the butt of his gun. The former wide receiver looked at him just before he tore out of the driveway and sneered, “Rick would be so proud, Marty. Too bad he couldn’t see this.” That jolly job had been just yesterday.
Jill Brinklan felt like she was on one of the cruelest reality TV shows ever dreamed up. She acknowledged Marty and his speech with a tight smile and nod, but she couldn’t meet his eye. She hadn’t been able to look at him since they got the news. She also found she couldn’t stand very well, hence her sitting in the metal folding chair. Lately, when on her feet, she sometimes lost her equilibrium. Squeezing her handkerchief, she stood, thanked everyone for coming, for being so kind, and sat right back down. She wondered if she’d ever forgive her husband for his pride. This was what pride got you. Anyone who’d read the Bible knew that. That morning, Marty had asked her which shirt he should wear, and she’d hissed at him like a cat and fled their bedroom. She went to the kitchen, obsessively running her hands over the stove because she was thinking of apple turnovers. Before Lee’s or Rick’s football games, she’d always made apple turnovers in the morning. When they first began the tradition, she let Lee handle the skillet, stirring the apple slices in butter, while Rick flattened the dough with a pizza roller. How funny little boys looked cooking, the way they got hyperventilatingly excited at each step. And later when they were ogre-like teenagers, total galoots, how amusing it was to watch them spread the apples daintily in the squares of dough and pinch them shut. The obscene exchanges she had to regulate—how did they even dream up such vulgarities? (Rick, wash your hands, we know your thumb was knuckle-deep in your ass last night; I’ll dip my scrotum in your eye, Lee.) That morning, stroking the stove, all of this came over her in one of those crippling waves that arrived as unpredictably as each freak gust of wind. She went out to the backyard, staggering past her garden to the fire pit, which still had singed Bud Light cans resting in the ashes from when Rick was last home. She lost her balance and sat down in the grass. Wanting to dig down through layer after layer of dirt until she found her son, until he was safe, until she could no longer smell this long-gone scent of burning.
Of the four planned speakers, however, the one who truly broke the hearts of the assembled was Ben Harrington. Ben, a college dropout struggling to make it as a musician, hated coming home. To him, downtown New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on a fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn but just before the flames take over. How vibrant and important and tough and exciting this place had seemed through the scrim of boyhood, back when he, Rick, and Bill Ashcraft rode their bikes all over kingdom come. They knew every spigot where you could fill up a water balloon and the best spot in the Cattawa River to go swimming and the best hill for sledding and the best wall to use for pushing on a guy’s chest until he passed out and had weird, twitchy, oxygen-deprivation dreams.
On that stage, Ben told a simple story from their boyhood. Once, on the banks of the Cattawa, wading around, feeling the mud between their toes, Rick had caught a frog. He held the squirming trophy in both amazed hands while Ben, blond locks whiplashing over his eyes, stumbled away.
“It’s just a friggin frog,” said Rick.
“Don’t get near me with that!”
“Just touch it.”
“Just touch it.”
“It’s not poison. That thing about it giving you warts idn’t true either.”
“Get away, Rick.”
Then Rick heaved the frog at Ben, who’d shrieked and fled, while the terrified frog ribbited the fuck away from these psychotic kids. Bill Ashcraft laughed deliriously. Ben cried, called them assholes, then sat down on the bank while they played in the water. After about five minutes, Rick came up to him, hands on his hips.
“C’mon, Harrington. Would it help if I ate a bug?”
“Huh? No. Wha—”
Before he could say anything else, Rick snatched up a grasshopper that had been hanging out on a leaf and popped it in his mouth. He gave it one hard crunch, swallowed, and then immediately choked, doubled over, and puked in the dirt. Ben had never laughed so hard in his young life. They were both in tears, Ben from cracking up and Rick from trying to hock up the grasshopper’s exoskeleton. After a while they ran back into the river as if nothing had happened and splashed around and spat water at the sun.
Laughter and a fresh round of sobs passed through the crowd. A father holding his teenage daughter’s shoulders suddenly gripped her, as if she might be borne away by this hard wind.
Of course, Ben didn’t share the story of the last time he saw Rick, in the spring of ’06. Home from his first tour, Rick had added even more layers of muscle to his beastly frame. He looked like he wore a full-body Kevlar vest. He got skunk-drunk, and Ben tried to broach the subject of Bill Ashcraft. Rick and Bill, friends from the crib, hadn’t spoken to each other in nearly three years. But Rick had only grisly stories of bravery, of the fun he was having in the Iraqi desert. “One time, thought I saw this rat carrying around a piece of beef jerky. So I thought, where’s your stash little buddy? Turns out it was a finger! Little cutey-tooty rat carrying around a finger!”
“Aw, don’t be a puss. It’s just war.”
Rick wouldn’t talk about Bill, and he wouldn’t talk about Kaylyn, but he did want to go out to Jericho Lake and smoke a joint.
“Don’t the Marines piss-test you?”
He barked a laugh. “Bullfrog, you little twat.” This was the thing about Rick: how his coarseness, his incivility, could never mask—and was in fact tied to—his great love for you.
And they did drive out to Jericho, too drunk, cruising up over the horizon of their snow-globe town. Ben wanted to write a song about Rick, this kind of guy you’d find teeming across the country’s swollen midsection: toggling Budweiser, Camels, and dip, leaning into the bar like he was peering over the edge of a chasm, capable of near philosophy when discussing college football or shotgun gauges, neck on a swivel for any pretty lady but always loyal to his true love, most of his drinking done within a mile or two of where he was born, calloused hands, one finger bent at an odd angle from a break that never healed right, a wildly foul mouth that could employ the word fuck as noun, verb, adjective, or gerund in a way you were sure had never existed before that moment (“Having us a fuckly good time,” he’d said, as they sat in the grass, staring out at the glistening midnight sheen of Jericho). Yet his friend was in no way standard. He was freewheeling, mule-stubborn, and cunning as a coyote trickster. He had whole oceans inside of him, the wilds of the country, fierce ghosts, and a couple hundred million stars.
“There’s nothing left, man. Nothing to go back to,” Rick cryptically declared that night. He freed his runty dick from his jeans and pissed so close to Ben that he had to scoot madly across the grass to avoid the splash. “Just you and me, buddy. Just you and me and this last lonesome night in each other’s arms.”
What was he talking about? Hard to say. Rick didn’t much understand himself, but something about what, in just three short years, had happened to him. To them. The places he’d seen, the things he’d done. On his last day home before his redeployment, he got obliterated in his backyard at the fire pit, chucking cobalt-blue cans of Bud Light into the flames even though his mom always scolded him for this. He took a walk down the road, to the field where, like an idiot, he’d once tried to give his girlfriend an engagement ring. Dusk settled in, and it was that odd midwestern temperature where the remnants of winter kept stealing day after day of spring. Scabs of melting snow lingered in the brush of the field. Beyond it stretched the forest and the scotched, brush-wire look of the leafless trees. Aqueous daylight came slanting over the horizon. Like a filter, it rendered the color of things differently, so that the field’s distant cows looked maroon and yellow in this kaleidoscopic sunset. He stood, smacking a melted puddle with his foot, waiting on the crows. You had to have faith, he figured. Faith that whatever pain you had in your life, God made up for it later.
Crows had taken to roosting in the woods near the industrial park about a mile away. Foraging in the dumpsters and the hackberry bushes, multiple flocks teamed up to become a larger and larger horde. His dad called them the “mega-murder” because of what happened at dusk. Rick watched his image wobble in the puddle, and when it went still, he would smack it, and his features would get that horizontal interference all over again. He was drunk and got to thinking. Thinking about this cage he lived in, this prison where it felt like he’d spend the entirety of his life, cradle to grave, measuring the distance between his most modest hopes and all the cheap regret he actually ended up living. You passed your time in the cage, he figured, by clinging pointlessly and desperately to an endless series of unfinished sorrows.
Then the crows lit out, thousands of them, pouring across the sky’s last light. They seemed to swell with a violet hue, creatures somewhere between rats and angels, cawing, descending into the forest in an eerie blanket, covering every naked winter branch . . .
When all was said and done with the parade, the crowd converged around the stage and those on it fell into their embraces and prayers. The wind sneaked up their sleeves, gouged at their eyes, and seemed to hustle them toward departure. Jill Brinklan dropped her plum handkerchief and never picked it up. Marty Brinklan turned to hug Lee, so he wouldn’t have to look at his wife. Kaylyn hopped off the stage quickly. Ben Harrington smeared tears across his cheek with the back of a cold hand. Vehicles from the procession began to peel off. A city maintenance truck arrived to fish the flag out of the branches of the oak tree. The casket was returned to Walmart. It was October 13, 2007.
In terms of our story, the parade was perhaps most notable not for the people who showed up but for those who were missing that day. Bill Ashcraft and Nasty Tina. Former volleyball star and First Christian Church attendee Stacey Moore. And a kid named Danny Eaton still doing his time in Iraq, a few years away from losing one of his pretty hazel eyes. Each of them missing for reasons of their own, all of them someday to return. 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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
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Since the turn of the century, a generation has come of age knowing only war, recession, political gridlock, racial hostility, and a simmering fear of environmental calamity. In the country’s forgotten pockets, where industry long ago fled, where foreclosures, Walmarts, and opiates riddle the land, death rates for rural whites have skyrocketed, fueled by suicide, addiction and a rampant sense of marginalization and disillusionment. This is the world the characters in Stephen Markley’s brilliant debut novel, Ohio, inherit. This is New Canaan.
On one fateful summer night in 2013, four former classmates converge on the rust belt town where they grew up, each of them with a mission, all of them haunted by regrets, secrets, lost loves. There’s Bill Ashcraft, an alcoholic, drug-abusing activist, whose fruitless ambitions have taken him from Cambodia to Zuccotti Park to New Orleans, and now back to “The Cane” with a mysterious package strapped to the underside of his truck; Stacey Moore, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting the mother of her former lover; Dan Eaton, a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried to forget; and the beautiful, fragile Tina Ross, whose rendezvous with the captain of the football team triggers the novel’s shocking climax.
At once a murder mystery and a social critique, Ohio ingeniously captures the fractured zeitgeist of a nation through the viewfinder of an embattled Midwestern town and offers a prescient vision for America at the dawn of a turbulent new age.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss your first impressions of New Canaan in the prelude. How are these impressions reinforced—or changed—throughout the course of the novel?
2. Consider the structure of the novel—how imperative do you feel it is to the reading experience?
3. “In them, I see the world that’s coming. The world we’re being banished to” (477). In what ways might the novel’s events feel microcosmic to current events and politics?
4. Consider Bill Ashcraft’s “T-shirt incident” which unites many of the novel’s central characters. How does this incident echo throughout the novel? How does it define Bill? Also, discuss the incident from the other characters’ points of view.
5. “In the last decade, everyone had learned to be a truth masseuse” (106). Discuss the novel in the frame of “post-truth.” Are the narrators reliable? Consider the different angles and perspectives in which we view the characters and their stories. How do these alternating views affect your overall perception of the characters?
6. Ohio is a novel fraught with power dynamics between its characters. How do they differ between the men and the women?
7. “Because people only act—they only change—with a gun to their head” (125) says Bill. Do you think this statement is true in regards to the characters of Ohio? Do you think any of the characters grew or changed for the better from who they were in high school? Contrast this bleak statement with the optimistic words of Mr. Clifton later on in the novel: “I see some of you kids I had in class years and years ago, and I can never believe the way you grow into yourselves as adults...It still makes me want to cry tears of joy every time” (232).
8. When driving with Bill through town, Dan observes that “New Canaan was one of the minor places that bore the aftershocks of deindustrialization” (283). How else do we see these aftershocks manifest on both macro and micro levels?
9. Hilde tells Stacey that she often makes “self-denigrating comments” towards her “bumblefuck town,’” and advises her to “break yourself of that habit. You’re here. You’re curious about the world” (192). How are Stacey and the other characters in the novel who do leave New Canaan—Bill, Dan, Rick, Ben—still bound to their hometown even as they explore the world? In what ways do they remain distinctly “Ohio”? What makes you think they feel this way?
10. “Where does a girl who’s lost her religion go to find meaning? What replaces the hole that faith, cast off, leaves behind?” (214). Discuss how religion—specifically, Evangelical Christianity—permeates the lives of characters in Ohio, and what replaces “that hole” for each character.
11. “Clichéd inspirational posters making success sound as if it had nothing to do with socioeconomics” (53). How do the characters in Ohio define success? How do their circumstances inhibit or encourage their individual definitions? Do you feel any of the characters might have been doomed from the beginning by their circumstances, or do you feel they sabotaged themselves?
12. “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, in the third act, it must be fired”—a “Chekhov’s gun” is a literary principle that advises writers to make sure every element in their stories comes into play at some point. Discuss how author Stephen Markley makes use of this principle. What would be the “Chekov’s guns,” so to speak, in Ohio?
13. The heartbeat of Ohio lies in its vivid characters. Is there one you relate to most, or one that reminds you of someone you know? Discuss with your book club.
14. Dan Eaton pins two quotes to his corkboard before he leaves for basic training: Thomas Paine’s “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it” and Abraham Lincoln’s “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” Discuss these quotes in relation to the events of the novel.
15. “I once read this book about how literature was this vast conversation that mocked all of the borders we normally think of: state boundaries, our own life spans, continents, millenia” (191). Does Ohio hold up to this definition? What borders do you think it mocks?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville are nonfiction accounts on many of the same themes as Ohio: deindustrialization, the economics of the Rust Belt, the cultural and political challenges faced by the Midwestern working class in the post-9/11 era—and more. Consider reading one or both of these books with your book club and discussing their parallels with Ohio.
2. Choose an epigraph for the novel—be it a lyric, a line from a poem, a snippet from a news outlet, or anything else, find a quote that you feel captures the spirit, themes, and tone of Ohio. Share with your book club.
3. In the novel, Dan and Hailey bond over a love of Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip inspired by and set in the same suburban Midwest where its creator, Bill Waterson, grew up. Read a few Calvin and Hobbes strips—in what ways might Calvin’s surroundings feel similar to New Canaan, and the childhoods of the characters of Ohio?
4. The cover photograph of Ohio is one image from a photo series by Harlan Erskine. Take a look at the rest of series on Erskine’s website: http://www.harlanerskine.com/ten-convenient-stores/tencstores-3. How do the rest of the images feel evocative to the mood and motifs of Ohio?
A Conversation with Stephen Markley
Congratulations on your first novel. Can you talk about what lit that initial spark that inspired you to write Ohio?
I’d been trying to write a version of this book for maybe a decade. I think many young authors typically try to explicate the place they’re from in their early work. Everyone has a sense that we need to prove where we come from matters (usually because it does). I finally began to stumble upon the framework that would become the novel after this bad night I had back home bouncing around a few bars, not unlike a few characters in the book. All I’ll say is inspiration is fickle and unpredictable.
Did you grow up in Ohio or the Midwest yourself? If so, how did it inform the writing process—and if not, how were you able to channel such a strong sense of familiarity with a community like New Canaan?
Yes, I did grow up in a small town in Ohio. Also, once I got my driver’s license in high school and my friends and I could sort of venture out to the surrounding towns and cities I became fascinated by the mythology of places that maybe other people wouldn’t find very fascinating: Mansfield, Cleveland, Columbus, Youngstown, Akron, and every tiny burgh and rural highway that connects them. The history, the burdens, the creepy backwoods stories—so much of it was sitting around in my head waiting to be used.
Can you talk about your experiences in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop? Did you start working on Ohio while still a student?
I went into Iowa extremely skeptical, to say the least, about what I’d get from the experience. Stubbornly, I never thought I’d go the MFA route, but there I found myself, and within two months, I was just chugging the Kool-Aid. I had early pieces of Ohio written before I went in, but it went through a Cambrian Explosion–style evolution once I arrived there. It was a completely life-changing experience, not only due to the people heading the classes but also because of my peers, who turned out to be a crop of such funny, fearless, brilliant people. I can’t even name names because the list is too long and full of too much dirt that would compromise people’s careers in the best kinds of ways.
Besides a fiction writer, you also work as a screenwriter and journalist. How do these other types of writing inform your fiction?
Probably discipline, research, and curiosity. Having always worked with a deadline, I basically can’t imagine not finishing a piece of writing when I’ve set a date to finish it. This means I’m at my desk every day working even when I’d rather not. It may sound like a small thing, but having met all the talented writers who go days, weeks, months without writing a word, I realize what an asset it is. There’s also this old Kurt Vonnegut interview banging around somewhere in which he says (I’m paraphrasing), “Great fiction writers tend to have things on their minds other than just fiction.” In other words, interviewing a healthcare policy wonk about the ramifications of the Affordable Care Act or a filmmaker working on a documentary about violence interrupters on the South Side of Chicago remains one of my best routes into fiction.
Can you talk about what kind of research you might have done to write Ohio?
A better question: “What kind of research did you say, ‘Eh, that might be a little much’?” Which is to say, I’m a total psycho. If I’d had any more time with the book, I would have been looking up shift change schedules at Jeld-Wen Windows and Doors plants because a fifth-string character happens to work at one. As a reader can probably tell, I spent a lot of time on the U.S. Army and the combat experience, a lot of time wandering around Walmarts striking up conversations with employees from which I’d later jank ideas. Most insanely, I practically wrote Stacey’s dissertation on ecological catastrophe in the context of the global novel only to cut 97% of it from the final draft. But for me it’s not so much getting this detail or that detail right, but in fully inhabiting the character, in seeing the world through their eyes entirely. So even if I end up cutting 97% of this thing I spent a year researching, I still have it all in mind’s eye. I get how Stacey views her interaction with a waitress spouting off an unexpected line of poetry because I’ve sunk all that time and effort into being in her brain.
The characters of Ohio are so visceral, each so vividly alive, and strikingly unique. Can you talk about how you crafted their individual voices, created their backstories, and decided how their lives would intersect? Is there one you relate to most?
That’s tough. You steal a little from people you know here and there, a little from your own experience, and then the rest just follows. Pretty soon, they are as alive and real to you in your head as, say, a good friend you grew up with. You can predict what they’ll do most of the time, and then at others they surprise you. It helps that I wanted each character to have a central preoccupation (as I think we all do), a wound that’s never healed, and a way of viewing the world that is distinct and hard-won. One of the most surprising scenes to write was when Bill, this brazen antiwar activist, is telling a Dan, a vet, that Dan fought these wars for nothing, that his experiences in these theaters and the people he lost to these conflicts were a waste. I had it in my head that Dan would come back at him hard, challenge him directly. But then I got to the page and Dan’s voice guided the scene elsewhere. He allows Bill keep talking and talking and suddenly the power between the two characters flips entirely. And the result, I think, is much more interesting, much more wrenching. There’s this weird thing where you have to let your characters behave as they would behave, even if it goes against what you had planned.
Similarly, even though many of the characters commit acts of cruelty, violence, or selfishness, you also render them in sympathy and humanity. Can you talk about how you prevented any character in Ohio from feeling like a clear-cut villain? Did you feel it was important for you to do so? Do you feel like there’s any hope left for them?
One of the clearest lines in the book is that notions of “villains” or “evil” are basically childhood fairytales adults tell themselves. I’ve heard people refer to a certain character in the book as a “monster” and though I’m way too polite to correct them, I think the novel speaks for itself about the danger of these simplistic categorizations. Behind what we think of as evil acts there are wounds, there is damage, there is grief, insecurity, fear, and loss. This is not a relativistic philosophy either. One can acknowledge and combat the horrible philosophies and dogmas and individual behaviors of our fellow human beings without doing ourselves the enormous disservice of simply grafting “evil” onto people we don’t like or don’t understand. But in imagining villains and heroes, I always keep in my head that villains love and are loved deeply by others while heroes frequently do terrible, unspeakable things for which they can never forgive themselves.
Did you always envision Ohio to be organized in overlapping sections (plus a prelude and coda), each focusing on one character? What challenges or rewards did you experience structuring the story this way?
The four characters in four sections was always the base of the novel, and the coda and prelude sort of grew out of suggestions from my agent and editor. Sula by Toni Morrison (not a bad Ohio author herself) also played an enormous role. The introduction to that novel just comes at you like a Scud missile, and Morrison talks about how the introduction was the very last part of the book she wrote. I’d had this moment that kept coming up over and over, of the parade following the return of a dead soldier. As soon as I started writing it, I knew that was the way in. Beyond that, I just loved the idea of being lost in each character’s world, of viewing all of their lives backward and forward and getting these miniature climaxes on the way to an accelerating ending. The organization, I hope, gives the book a kind of propulsion, it hurtles the reader forward as he or she tries to decipher how it will all come together. So far, I’ve not heard anyone say, “Markley, c’mon, I saw that coming.” You just want those last forty pages to shock the shit out of you and yet feel totally inevitable in retrospect. To leave you scrambling to unearth all the hidden depths of New Canaan.
Were there any particular books, music, films, or anything else that inspired or informed Ohio?
I’m very bad at this question, panic, and answer it differently every time. Like I think saying Bruce Springsteen and Toni Morrison is not innacurate, but neither is Quentin Tarantino and Dead Prez or Edward Hopper and the poet Lisa Wells. It’s not that one seeks to be influenced but that pieces of art and reportage and the irreducibly bizarre experience of being alive act upon your central vision at all times in ways you can never predict or understand.
Can you talk about what you’re working on now? Do you think you’ll ever return to the characters of Ohio or the town of New Canaan?
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m in this place right now, with a book that, no matter what happens with sales or reviews and all that other glitter, is something I’m deeply proud of, that has this team of incredible people behind it and who believe in it. I don’t want to take any of that for granted.
If you had to name a single emotion or feeling that you feel drives Ohio, what would it be? What overarching feeling do you want to leave readers with after they finish the book? What do you want them to take away?
The interaction between the writer and the reader is the mystical, ethereal, inexplicable place, right? Like I know what I think is in my book and what it should be evoking and how it should be read, but as with every piece of literature, the reader will bring his or her own hopes, biases, determinations, and dogmas to it. Like I can say that it’s a novel about love and loss and war and recession and addiction and ecology and religion and trauma and hope in the dark, but I’m not sure that means much except to taint that inexplicable encounter. Hell, I’m not even sure authors should answer questions about their novels! It breaks the Spell, even if just by a sliver of a degree. Mostly, I want people to close the book and say what all authors want to hear, which is, “Damn. I would throw my grandmother out a window to get an advance copy of whatever this guy writes next.”
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 4, 2019)
- Length: 512 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501174483
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Raves and Reviews
PRAISE FOR OHIO BY STEPHEN MARKLEY
"Markley [does] some extraordinary things with the structure of the book . . . Casual details suddenly take on new surprising significance. There's real pleasure in this hopscotching narrative: with each new point of view, a clearer sense of the hidden story emerges as the reader slowly pieces together some shocking revelations . . . The most moving parts of the book are those that step back and let the events and the actions speak for themselves, as when one character (the shy bookish one from high school) recalls his first tours in Afghanistan. The beautifully precise details are all the more vivid for their lack of accompanying commentary. The real core of this earnestly ambitious debut lies not in its sweeping statements but in its smaller moments, in its respectful and bighearted renderings of damaged and thwarted lives. It's the human scale that most descriptively reveals the truth about the world we're living in."—DAN CHAON, NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“[Ohio is] a descendent of the Dickensian ‘social novel’ by way of Jonathan Franzen: epic fiction that lays bare contemporary culture clashes, showing us who we are and how we got here…Markley’s prose [is] as lively as a bonfire, crackling with incisive details…Markley’s gift is keeping one eye on these intimate specifics and the other on the expansive landscape of modern American life.”—O MAGAZINE
“Ohio isn't just a remarkable debut novel, it's a wild, angry and devastating masterpiece of a book. Markley's debut is a sprawling, beautiful novel that explores the aftermath of the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a powerful look at the tenuous bonds that hold people together at their best and at their worst. [Ohio] is intricately constructed, with gorgeous, fiery writing that pulls the reader in and never lets go.”—NPR
“Genuinely absorbing…Ohio burns with alienation, nihilism, frustration and finally love for a place that gave birth to all of them.”—WASHINGTON POST
"A book of genuine substance and style...Markley’s skill is apparent...Both a lament and a love letter, Ohio is a reminder of the wealth of stories hidden in small towns, and of how much 'history and pathos could accumulate in errant pockets on any given night.'"—WALL STREET JOURNAL
“Markley's ambitious foray into fiction reunites four high school classmates on a fateful summer night in their Ohio hometown, in what reads like a darker-themed epilog to Friday Night Lights…Markley's prose sparkles with insight and supports an intricate narrative architecture that recalls Nathan Hill's The Nix and Patrick Somerville's This Bright River…highly recommended for all literary collections.”—LIBRARY JOURNAL (STARRED REVIEW)
"Reporters have fanned out in search of answers to Middle America’s decline and Trumpist desperation, but Markley is one of the first novelists to fully reflect the social forces at work without sacrificing an iota of character work or narrative tension. Drawing on the reunion-novel tradition, he brings together four alumni of the same (fictional) Ohio high school on one momentous evening a decade after graduation, each with their own pattern of escape and return—and their own mission of repentance or retribution."—VULTURE (NYMAG.COM)
"[Ohio is] a thoughtful examination of the neglected corners of a traumatized country — and one that will pierce your loyal, loving heart."—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
“A book that has stayed with me ever since I put it down.” —SETH MEYERS, host of Late Night with Seth Meyers
“[A] standout debut…Markley’s novel is alternately disturbing and gorgeous, providing a broad view of the anxieties of a post-9/11 Middle America and the complexities of the humans who navigate them."—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
"[Ohio is] so rich in complex storytelling and literary excellence that it’s difficult to believe it’s a fiction debut."—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
"Timely and of vital importance, Ohio delves into the spectrum of issues consuming contemporary America’s Rust Belt, exploring topics like joblessness, addiction, terrorism, sexuality, religion and sex, to name a few. Markley’s disturbing masterpiece reads like the offspring of Harlan Coben, Jonathan Franzen and Hanya Yanagihara: an illuminating snapshot of our current era masquerading as a twisted character-driven thriller, filled with mordant wit and soul-shaking pathos... an edifying and unforgettable read that leaves [readers] breathless."—BOOKPAGE
“The characters walk and talk like real, messed-up people; the author cares about them, and so does the reader. The prologue-four sections-coda structure works because Markley took the time to connect everything in a masterful set of flashbacks and flash-forwards that parcel out enough information to make the conclusion both shocking and inevitable. Ohio is a big novel about what happened after 9/11, the initial euphoria and the long depression that grips us still.”—SEATTLE TIMES
"Effectively four tart, well-turned novellas bundled in a symphonic prologue and epilogue...Markley writes each of these character studies with powerhouse command and painterly detail about socioeconomic distinctions...Markley’s novel is in line with a dark strain of Midwestern fiction that runs from Edgar Lee Masters to Gillian Flynn. Its bleakness and style are appealing."—MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
"[A] knockout debut...fully engrossing from the start, save moments when you’re taken aback by how good the writing really is, how flawless the storytelling...Ohio is a ceaselessly beautiful and gut-wrenching debut."—CHICAGO REVIEW OF BOOKS
"Ambitious and suspenseful." —COLUMBUS DISPATCH
“The kind of book that people rarely attempt to write anymore…A Big American Novel that seeks to tell us where we live now.”—THE MILLIONS
“In his bold debut novel, Ohio, Stephen Markley visits the fictional northeastern Ohio town of New Canaan to paint in vivid colors the shattered dreams and stunted lives of young adults removed by roughly a decade from their high school graduation. It's an intensely realistic and keenly observed portrait that puts a human face on subjects often obscured by statistics and expert opinion… a dark and deeply felt examination of a generation confronting problems that can't be solved quickly or with ease…it has earned a place in any conversation about the important role fiction can play in reflecting life back to us when we look squarely in the mirror.”—SHELF AWARENESS
"Markley is a knockout storyteller, infusing each section with realistic detail, from the drudgery of Walmart work to war to the fleeting ecstasies of drugs to violence, especially self-harm."—KIRKUS REVIEWS
"Important and ambitious...this year's Hillbilly Elegy of fiction."—SALON
"Beautifully descriptive...an insightful, tragic story."—BOOKLIST
"Ambitious...one of the most human novels I've read in a long, long time...it does what a good book should, which is just sucks you in to the extent that time not spent reading it feels like wasted time...it makes you think long after you have turned the final page...highly, highly recommend it."—ROGER BENNETT, MEN IN BLAZERS
"Ohio captures the hacking cough of 2018’s poisoned America. Markley’s dialogue often sums up our national Great Depression—not economic, but the spiritual frustration of this bitter century...a biting portrayal of Midwest ennui."—THE DAILY BEAST
“Stephen Markley is an expert cartographer of the American Rust Belt and the haunted landscapes of his characters' interiors. A fast-moving and devastating debut.”—KAREN RUSSELL, New York Times bestselling author of Swamplandia!
“Ohio is that rarest of unicorns, a novel that swings for the fences, and actually tries to explain just what the fuck happened to this country after the towers fell, and how we got to this awful particular moment. Stephen Markley goes for the universe with every single sentence he writes. That the universe answers him as often as it does makes for a hugely impressive first novel.”—CHARLES BOCK, New York Times bestselling author of Alice & Oliver
“If the American dream has given way to American carnage, then this is the great American novel of its time. Stephen Markley is a gifted storyteller who has written a fearless and impressive debut.”—DAVID BEZMOZGIS, author of Natasha and The Betrayers
“Ohio is heartbreaking, frightening, and occasionally, amidst the sorrow and horror, transcendent—a novel that casts the clearest possible eye on people haunted by who they used to be and might have become, and a country haunted by the same. Stephen Markley is unflinching.”—KEVIN BROCKMEIER, author of The Illumination
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