In Ohio, on a summer night in 2013, four graduates of New Canaan High School in Ohio return to their hometown unbeknownst to each other. Bill, a one-time activist who sank under a circle of alcoholism and drug use, was there to make a dubious and secretive delivery. Stacey, a doctoral student in literature, has come to confront her past in the form of an ex’s mother. Veteran Danny, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, was visiting to see his parents, and Tina Ross returned for a long-planned mission.
Returning to New Canaan made memories of high school surface, and each of these characters had an old love they couldn’t escape. Although they weren’t friends, in a small town, everyone knew each other, and their paths overlapped, and their friends were friends of each other so they figured into each other’s memories. I am very glad my high school experience was not the depressing, oppressive environment these characters faced as their behavior was constrained by both peer pressure which was in opposition to the strict religion of their families. They were cruel and often unforgiving, in part, I think Markley would argue, because they grew up in a town like New Canaan, a town suffused with hopelessness caused by job loss, foreclosures, drug addiction–all fostering an ether of hopelessness and a vision of a dark future.
Each character has a long chapter, and the chapters overlap so that they only make sense together. Bill’s chapter introduces the book, and, because he is drunk and on LSD, it’s a hallucinatory initiation. The other chapters are more traditional, and by the final chapter, told from Tina’s point of view, the book reads like a crime thriller.
Bill was such a sad character for me because I often agreed with him politically and pitied him for the mess his life became. His activism began when he opposed the Iraq war and wore an anti-Bush t-shirt to school, upsetting both his conservative classmates and teachers. He argued that patriotism (or nationalism) is often a distraction conceived by those in power to distract the populace from sorrow. Alone, he felt, he fought against the “Great American Thing”:
“What you learn’s like: the American system . . .” He flicked his cigarette into the road. “It’s not like this conspiracy of Illuminati. It’s just this adaptive, fucking assimilating, smooth motherfucker. It gives you cars and credit and religion and television and all this other comfort that we go and call ‘freedom.’ Problem is, there’s no raging against the machine because the machine just consumes whatever objection anyone makes about it.”
One of Markley’s achievements in this novel is allowing the reader to feel empathy for even the worst characters. The one that to me was the cruelest also had a love for dogs and had once dreamed of success and opening a no-kill shelter in New Canaan. At the same time, characters that at first were written as very likable were given flaws that deepened and complicated them.
Even though Ohio was filled with despair, reflected in the fact that all the present-day scenes were set at night, and the ending was actually pretty horrific, it was also very hopeful. And, strangely enough, though the characters were messy, unsuccessful (for the most part), and confused, they were also at times honorable, intelligent, and kind. When I was finished reading, I actually found myself missing them.