Books · Emotional Health

Two New Explosive Books Go Inside the Opioid Crisis

Stephen Markley’s novel, Ohio, is an excellent companion to Macy’s book. In it, we follow the lives of four people who went to high school together. Set in small Ohio town beset by many of the social problems that helped give rise to the despair fueling the opioid crisis, these two men and two women came of age during the post-9/11 years and the War in Iraq. We follow each of them through the next nine years, with flashbacks alternating with a night in 2013 when they all wind up back in town for different reasons.

Here, we get a close look at an area that is reeling from the results of sending its sons unprepared to a brutal war, closing factories, diminishing family ties, and the effects of the great recession. Pain is everywhere. Everyone is looking for someone to blame and something to ease the pain. Markley’s story is specific yet universal, as he writes, “Out here on the edges of the fracturing economy . . . people muled mysterious packages back and forth across the scorched American landscape.”

One of these travelers, Bill, is carrying a package of unknown contents, and back home he runs into some of his old classmates who have never left the town: the “once handsome, marbled, small-town athletes who couldn’t understand why they hadn’t conquered the world.” Popular, but never a good fit in his cohort, Bill was the one boy who embraced left-wing politics with a fervor that annoyed his best friend Rick, a straight shooter who enlisted in the marines and died in the war.

The characters in Ohio are instantly recognizable but Markley never lapses into cliché. Even the smartest, most popular, and most appealing kids have gone off the rails. Girls who once might have married a promising young man, find all the promise has gone out of the landscape for everyone. Boys, fueled by anger and despair, use girls for sexual release and worse, as targets of violence. Only the most unconventional of the four, a lesbian, finds some hope in the pursuit of an academic career in Chicago.

As the novel comes to an end on that night in 2013 and the unplanned reunion that takes place, we learn that things that were set in motion long ago have kept their grip on the characters’ lives. One bad act, and then another, has created ripples of despair and a decade of wrong turns for these young people. There attempts to escape through drugs, alcohol, and mindless sex are just so many rungs on a ladder left broken years ago.

Harsh as the portraits presented by these two books are, they leave us with a much deeper understanding of the ills that are sickening our nation. Understanding the national discourse can be enriched by these “eyewitness” accounts of what it feels like to live in a land with no hope.


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  • S. Sapunor September 13, 2018 at 11:41 am

    Read Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015) !