A group of young men and women aggressively affected by the post–9/11 world reconverge in their Ohio hometown.
Markley’s (Tales of Iceland, 2013, etc.) flagrantly symphonic debut novel is effectively four linked novellas, with each section circling around a high school friend or acquaintance of Rick, who was killed in action in Iraq. Each person has hit on hard times in their 20s, and on one evening in their hometown of New Canaan, they’re laboring to set things right. Bill has an omnivorous drug habit and is hauling a plainly illicit but unidentified (until the climax) package north from New Orleans; Stacey wants to confront the homophobic mother of her high school girlfriend; Dan is an Afghanistan war vet who wants to catch up with an old flame; and Tina has a score to settle with the jock who sexually abused her in high school. 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. (Tina’s section is especially tough reading on that last front.) High school, Markley writes, provided “stories of dread and wonder you could wrap whole novels around,” and he’s followed through. There's an unsettling feeling, though, that while he’s mastered complex characterization, it’s often in service of simplistic broader portraiture about the Rust Belt. New Canaan, “sclerotic in every capacity,” is doom-and-gloom to the edge of caricature: Its economy is rotted and shored up on meth and disability checks, its community reduced to pro-Trump resentment and anti-Muslim anger. The culture Markley describes unquestionably exists, and strong novels about America’s underclass are lamentably thin on the ground. But this novel is best appreciated as a set of portraits rather than (as the title suggests) a definitive statement about an entire state.
This is a big character-driven epic, though it’s overinflated in its pronouncements about its setting.