Best Literary Fiction of 2018

We’re continuing the countdown! This is a competitive category this year, and the award goes to a debut author as well:

Ohio

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.

Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch****

goodbehaviorcrouchLast spring I advance- read and reviewed the riveting sci fi thriller Dark Matter, which was my introduction to author Blake Crouch, who has already met with success as a screenwriter. When I saw that something else he had written was up for grabs at Net Galley, I landed on it eagerly. Thanks go to them as well as Thomas and Mercer at Amazon for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Good Behavior consists of a trilogy of Letty Dobesh stories, along with a brief narrative that follows each one explaining how it was tweaked (pardon the pun) as it was adapted to television. Our protagonist herself is, in fact, a recovering meth addict, and there is only one activity that comes close to the rush she experiences when she uses it, and that’s crime. Not just the seamy survival type of theft; not just cleaning valuables out hotel rooms while the guests are off in tourist-land. A big theft with huge risk and a potentially tremendous payday provides the adrenaline rush Letty needs to stay clean, not forever, but for one more day.

Letty is a kick-ass character, a woman who’s been knocked down a million times and gotten back up a million and one. I love the way Crouch works her motivation. Actor-director Jodie Foster once commented that when men in the film industry want to reach the core of a character’s motivation, they reach every damn time for rape, and I’ve noticed that male authors do this with female protagonists a lot also. It’s a fascination they can’t seem to let go of. I am cheered to see that Crouch does something much different, with Letty’s main motivation being the need either to stay clean, or on bad days, the need to score. Behind the need to stay clean is the possibility of seeing her six year old son, Jacob, again. He is living in Oregon with his paternal grandparents; he’s in a stable, loving environment, and though Letty yearns to see him, she won’t let herself go there until she is convinced she can stay clean. But there are triggers out there in the everyday world that some of us could never have imagined:

“She could almost taste the smoke. Gasoline and plastic and household cleaners and Sharpies and sometimes apples. Oh yes, and nail polish.”

Around every corner, temptation calls to her. She can’t even get a pedicure without the fumes invoking a primal craving.

My hunch is that Letty will be with us a long time, and I am curious to see whether this child will remain six years old forever; grow up, but more slowly than real-time chronology; or be aged as if in real time. I can think of some hit mystery series that have been frozen in time to good effect. Crouch could keep Jacob small throughout the life of the series, and this might make more sense than having him grow up and be independent; on the other hand, this series is so full of surprises already that there’s no telling what will happen.

To see the first television episode, in which the protagonist’s name is different from the book:

https://www.goodbehavior.tntdrama.com/?sr=good%20behavior%20video

The first story involves a murder for hire. The second is a complicated rip-off of a billionaire who’s about to go to prison. The last and by far the best is a scheme to knock over a casino. The casino plot is proof positive that a relatively old concept (theft of a casino’s funds) can be made brand new in the right hands.

I believed Letty nearly all of the time; the only weak spot I see is when she considers dialing 911, a thing that former prisoners just never, ever do. No matter how big and ugly a situation gets, for someone who’s been in jail, and especially for those that have gone to a penitentiary, calling cops will only make it worse. Even if the caller is Caucasian, and even if she believes she can do so anonymously, cops are never desirable. They’re just not on the menu of choices anymore.

This is a super fast read, one that might make for a fantastic holiday weekend. There’s lots of dialogue, crisp and snappy. Best of all, it has just been released, and so you can get a copy now. If the turkey is dry and the marshmallows on your yams catch fire, Letty Dobesh can knock everything back into perspective for you.

Recommended to those that love dark humor and big surprises.