Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

Chasing Ghosts: the Policing of Terrorism, by John Mueller and Mark Stewart***

chasingghostsI suspect just about everyone in the USA, or who frequently has to travel to the USA, is heartily sick of the extreme security measures that raise our taxes through the roof and cause so many delays, inconveniences, and even the confiscation of ordinary products that cost us a fair amount of money, on those occasions that we foolishly forget not to take them with us on the plane. The racial profiling makes it even worse. And so I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Oxford University Press with the expectation that I would agree with it wholeheartedly and immediately form the virtual simpatico with its writers that readers form with their favorite authors. Alas, not so much.

It’s not a terrible book, but it’s also not a great one. The writing style comes across as strangely antagonistic, odd given that I was ready to agree with them when I began the book. They make a lot of good points, particularly in comparing the expenditures of the Federal government to the amount that was spent on the Cold War and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950’s. But whenever I read scholarly nonfiction, I am inclined to check out the end notes early on, and I was struck by the large number of times Mueller and Stewart quoted themselves (or sometimes one or the other of themselves separately). Their other sources were more likely to be newspapers and magazines rather than primary documents, which were used sparingly.

My sense is that if you’re going to challenge the status quo, you have to roll up your sleeves and do it right. In this case, a worthy thesis, at least to some extent, is less credible than it might have been with more diligent research and more legitimate scholarship.

My gut was inclined to rate this book two stars rather than three, but then I realized that my gut was responding to the ISIS mass killings in France. For the writers, it’s just pure dumb bad luck that the real terrorists created such tremendous outrage and heartfelt sympathy throughout the Western world, and in doing so underscored the reason such stringent security measures are in place, just as their book was nearing publication.

The most compelling argument against the Patriot Act and all of its associated agencies and agents is that when someone is willing to die in order to commit a mass killing, nobody and nothing can really stop them. The security measures being utilized are effective against people that want to enter an establishment or a vehicle and kill as many people in it as possible, then walk away and live to kill more people another day. This wasn’t the primary argument Mueller and Stewart rolled out. Their main argument, that the Bill of Rights is being trampled by the very government that was invented to uphold the Constitution, is a good one and I think would have been easier to get behind had events not unfolded as they did, and of course, had the source material been more impressive; yet the safety of all of us will always preclude individual liberties. So in a sense, ISIS gives the conservative, locked-down wing of the ruling class a red-carpet invitation to clamp down on civil liberty; but that would not have made a book that would sell, and perhaps that is why the authors didn’t make this their focus.

If this is an area of interest to you, you can get a copy November 30. I wouldn’t pay hard cover price for it unless you have tremendous interest and very deep pockets, though.