Dan schooled him: “Uh, Lebron James? The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, Steven Spielberg? John Brown spent his formative years in Ohio.”
“Christ, don’t get you started on Ohio. You’re a fucking walking Wikipedia entry.”
“Johnny Appleseed. Ever heard of him? Ohian.”
So goes a conversation between two soldiers deployed to FOB Langman in Afghanistan portrayed in Stephen Markley’s 2018 novel Ohio. As a native Ohian myself (born in Athens), the snatch of dialogue piqued my interest, among many things in Markley’s excellent novel that intrigued me, for its description of the role the Buckeye State plays in what academics call “the cultural imaginary.” Ohio seems to be an appealing place for examination of such things these days, as Ohio-the-novel joins Nico Walker’s novel Cherry (set in Cleveland) and Hugh Martin’s poetry volume In Country as recent imaginative works dissecting the ties between Midwestern political and economic malaise and the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s not forget either a recent spate of books about Ohio’s most famous warrior-son Ulysses S. Grant, the drift of which seeks to recoup respect for Grant’s military, political, and literary achievements as an antidote not just to Robert E. Lee idolatry but in marked counterpoint to our current Commander-in-Chief. To gather it all together, these works seem to address two common concerns: What’s the matter with Ohio, and what, if anything, can Ohio, at its best, offer the nation?
Markley’s Ohio makes an especially apt companion piece to Walker’s Cherry, as reviewers such as Christian Lorentzen and Nathan S. Webster have noted. Both novels feature young Ohio men of no particular means or ambition who join the military, fight overseas, and return (or, at least some of them return) to Ohio locales defined by few economic prospects and rampant drug use-and-abuse. Stylistically, the novels couldn’t be more different; where Cherry exudes a terse, minimalist ethos uninterested in literary flourishes, narrative trickery, or grandiloquent pontification, Ohio revels in novelistic excess, as if Cherry had been given a makeover by Ben Fountain (the two works exemplify “the raw” and “the cooked” war-and-mil writing poles I stake out in this blog post). The two novels differ in their basic regard for the military, too. In Cherry, the narrator, based on Walker himself, is contemptuous of the Army he joins, finding little value in its ideals, missions, and methods, or in the people with whom he serves. Markley, not a veteran, portrays two characters, one, Rick Brinklan, who joins the Marines and one, Dan Eaton, who joins the Army, differently. Each, within the range of possibilities offered to them and their peers in the fictional small town of New Canaan, embodies honor and good sense, and the military, whatever its shortcomings, is more generative of human commonweal than anything available back home. Not perfect, mind you—Rick is killed in Iraq and Dan loses an eye in the process of committing a war-crime in Afghanistan—but better by far than the failed state and blighted social microcosm from which the two men use the military to escape. In the exploration of this irony lies Ohio’s contribution to interminable debates about “the civil-military divide” and “thanking soldiers for their service.”
For starters, Ohio suggests that the 9/11 attacks accelerated the polarization of America into two political-ideological camps whose formation blasted any sense of shared American ideals and endeavor, here suggested in a divide that separates Rick Brinklan and his childhood friend Bill Ashcraft:
Then two planes hit the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and a final one dug a crater in a Pennsylvania field, and almost that same day, he felt a divergence occur between them. Bill observed the flag-waving, the brainless nationalism, the invocation of military might as a panacea for sorrow, and it felt to him like a bad movie, a gloss of convenient worship for shared bloodletting. Rick got into it. Really into it….
To be fair, the ideas in this passage are expressed through the wonders of free indirect discourse as those of Bill’s, so they may not precisely be Markley’s, but they don’t seem too far off, either. That 9/11 served to divide the nation, not unite it, is linked to a longer-term economic deterioration precipitated primarily by greedy charlatans who grew rich while skillfully escaping blame for the catastrophic damage they inflicted on the Midwest:
Ohio hadn’t gone throught the same real estate boom as the Sun Belt, but the vultures had circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns—Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron—peddling home equity loans and refinancing… The foreclosures began to crop up and then turn into fields of fast-moving weeds, reducing whole neighborhoods to abandoned husks or drug pens. Ameriquest, Countrywide, CitiFinancial—all those devious motherfuckers watching the state’s job losses, plant closings, its struggles, its heartache, and figuring out a way to make a buck on people’s desperation. Every city or town in the state had big gangrenous swaths that looked like New Canaan, the same cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.
Helpless in the face of such exploitation, or clueless about its true nature, the dazed denizens of Midwest wastelands lack the wherewithal to save themselves. One of the characters in Ohio notes that a factory abandoned some thirty years past still dominates downtown New Canaan like a wrecked cathedral, which the residents don’t seem to mind, or notice, and perhaps even like, oblivious that they might be expected to muster some sort of collective agency to revitalize or remove it.
In the years following 9/11, the nation’s actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figure almost irrelevantly in the lives of New Canaan’s residents, even as quite a few of the town’s sons and daughters go off to fight in them. The real after-effect of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror is the home-front growth of frenzied xenophobia about the danger posed by brown-skinned Muslim immigrants to the warp-and-woof of American and Ohioan life. Almost to a man, and even more so among the young than among the silver-haired Fox News-watchers, the male residents of New Canaan are driven to rhetorical apoplexy and actual violence by their sense that someone—namely Democrats and liberals—has allowed the very people the nation is fighting to infiltrate the nation’s ranks and threaten its character. In the mostly-white New Canaan, old-school black-white tension exists, but in almost diluted, benign form compared to the venomous hatred now directed toward non-Christian immigrants by young white men without education, their sputtering rage and impotence in the face of demographic change and diversity exacerbated by excessive drinking and drug use.
Whether all of this is true or not, or rings true or not, probably depends on where you lie on the Red-Blue spectrum. Ohio’s Amazon reviews suggest as much. There’s lots of 5-star ratings, but many 1-star reviews too, the tenor of which suggest that Ohio is a liberal hit-job launched from the elitist coasts. The issue is complicated by Markley’s portrait of characters with liberal, progressive, and radical politics and world-views. By-and-large they are described as possessed by their own form of self-hatred, one generated by internalizing the idea that to be out of step with the New Canaan mainstream is an act of self-marginalization born not of superior intelligence but of character perversity equal to or greater than the irrationalism of the xenophobes. They hate themselves, and thus are neither liked nor trusted by their more conservative peers, who find them deeply inauthentic and not credible:
What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.
In that space between deplorable provincial conservatives and enfeebled liberal exiles Markley situates Rick and Dan. If we ascribe a liberal politics to Markley, as do many of his Amazon reviewers, then one of the conundrums he tries to reconcile in Ohio is the irony that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as stupid and wasteful as they are, serve as venues for redemption of a modern America that is equally as stupid and has squandered its riches and its virtues. Rick’s no goody-goody, but as a former high school football star he possesses a Pat Tillman-like stalwartness that commands respect. Dan’s more ordinary, but his essential decency and kindness is recognized by everyone. Military service doesn’t inculcate in them a love of force, guns, and hyper-aggressive masculinity—the men who don’t serve are far more infected by these traits—but rather reinforces an inherent understanding of how an individual contributes responsibly to a social collective. Unfortunately, Rick’s and Dan’s potential is blighted by the military and war that also nourishes them—Rick by death and Dan by disability, guilt, and shame for the war-crime he is horrified to have committed—so not only do they ultimately not thrive in the military but they are unable to return to New Canaan and live out long lives as grown men contributing to the civic polity.
The implications of that last point are too dismal to contemplate, so let’s end with brief consideration of a capsule portrait of a soldier named Greg Coyle with whom Dan serves in Iraq. In my last post on Cherry, I praised Nico Walker’s description of a soldier named Jimenez, who is fated to be killed in combat. An emerging truism of war-writing is that any minor character described with any love and attention-to-detail will soon be vanquished and vanished from the story, but be that as it may, such capsule portraits are often among the most memorable passages in the works that contain them. Here’s an example of such an unwitting obituary from Ohio:
When they stood for inspections, Dan, like everyone, would get ripped, maybe because he’d stored his compression bandages in the wrong place or always tried to get away with not wearing the side plates of his body armor (those heavy, awkward five-by-five bastards). Greg Coyle, no matter how goofy he was, never got ripped, was always on point. Coyle, who referred to everything as a “MacDougal.” A bore snake, pliers, a target at the range, military-age males, MREs, ops, battalion—they were all just MacDougals to him. To the dismay of the whole company, within weeks of their deployment everyone was saying it.
“We’re getting those up-armored MacDougals next month.”
“Those powdered MacDougals—goddamn! Better than Mom’s homemade MacDougal.”
“That other MacDougal was getting rocked by IEMacDougals.”
They landed in Iraq in 2006, when the country was no joke, but that joke worked right through rocket attacks and EFPs.
The second thing Dan did after he got out and visited Rudy in the hospital was attend Bren Della Terza’s wedding in Austin, Texas. A lot of his friends from Iraq were there, guys he hadn’t seen in a while because they’d gotten out after two tours. Badamier, Lieutenant Holt, Cleary, Wong, Doc Laymon, Drake in his wheelchair, “Other James” Streiss, now with two robot hands. They of course got drunk and began referring to everything as a “MacDougal,” annoying the hell out of those piqued Texas bridesmaids. Decent, churchgoing women who had never seen soldiers cut loose. How hilariously stupid they could be. In his buzz, Dan found himself wishing to return to 2006, to be back on patrol with his friends.
Stephen Markley, Ohio. Simon and Schuster, 2018.