Gilbert T. Sewall, contributor: I receive at Christmas each year an armload of books that I would never purchase for myself. But they do get close inspection. The givers pay attention, as I do not, to splashy non-fiction books coming from the Intelligent Left. And yes, Ann Coulter, there is one.
Such a book, entitled Fear: Trump in the White House, came out in September from Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. I’ve never read any of Woodward’s accounts before, but I find his Washington-insider style intensely vivid and readable. The title refers to President Donald J. Trump’s belligerent exercise of power, but the word also reflects what elected Trump: middle-class decline and dispossession. Woodward’s portrait reveals an alarming imperial style, confirming what is well known. The voices of thoughtful White House officials who act to restrain the impulsive, anti-republican Trump and his entourage impressed me. The Mueller-related histrionics bored me to tears. A London banker told me years ago Trump is compromised financially by Russian money. OK, fine, I’ll take his word. But the long-running D.C. morality play is, Samuel Beckett-like, Waiting for Ivan. Trump is no doubt highly defective as an executive, but political writers like Woodward still can’t appreciate the yeoman anxiety that got Trump elected in the first place.
Another such book is Breaking News from Alan Rusbridger. I had never heard of Rusbridger before, but he was top editor at the U.K. Guardian for some 20 years. His sharply observed memoir recounts how the storied British newspaper adapted to shifts in journalism to become a huge global website. He reviews how media outliers Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald won the Guardian a Pulitzer Prize. In his book’s most compelling passages, Rusbridger considers how hard it has been for established journalists in the print world to internalize new media’s transformative power. Wikipedia came in 2001 and Google in 2002; Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in 2006; the iPhone in 2007. By 2018, a Twitter network of 340 million active users was also the nation’s premier political news venue. (This was stunningly evident to me during the Kavanaugh hearings.) As president, Barack Obama pioneered Twitter; Trump uses it as his megaphone. Rusbridger’s conclusions are not reassuring. Complex subjects—not least “climate change”—are easily sensationalized. Other topics are simply ignored when there’s no baited hook. What drives traffic? What makes money? What gets eyes? Quality reporting and writing cost money, and responsible news and editorial media have continuing trouble making it.
Grayson Quay, contributor: As Christmas break approached, I found myself growing tired of old books and hungering for some sort of contemporary fiction, so almost at random, I picked up Ohio by Stephen Markley.
It’s Markley’s first novel (though he has also written a travelogue, an experimental meta-memoir, and a book-length gonzo piece chronicling his experience of going to a 2012 Republican primary debate while tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms), and it’s certainly an ambitious one.
Set in the fictional, postindustrial town of New Canaan in Northeast Ohio, the book is split into four novellas, each focusing on a different character who graduated from New Canaan High School in the early years of the millennium (though Markley often shifts temporarily into other characters’ perspectives). As is often the case in a small town, all four characters are aware of each other, and although none of them are good friends, their social circles intersect and collide in often surprising ways. All four move away but coincidentally end up back in town on the same night in 2013. And of course, as everyone who’s ever revisited their small town knows, they can’t help running into each other.
We begin with Bill Ashcraft, who provokes hatred by vocally condemning American imperialism while the rest of his classmates watch the Twin Towers fall. He has spent the 10 years since graduation working with a variety of nonprofits and NGOs trying to save everything from Louisiana wetlands to Cambodian child sex slaves to the ninety-nine percent. By 2013, he has nothing to show for it but a bad substance abuse problem and an acute case of leftist paranoia.
Then, grad student Stacey Moore (Bill’s friend’s ex-girlfriend) tells the story of the conflict between her evangelical upbringing and her budding homosexuality. Dan Eaton (who briefly dated a friend of one of Stacey’s friends) describes his three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as he devours history books, becomes convinced that history is nothing more than an accumulation of atrocities. And finally, there’s Tina Ross (Stacey’s childhood friend), whose life peaked when she dated the quarterback as a freshman and who now works at Wal-Mart. I haven’t finished reading her story yet.
Markley’s Midwest is practically post-apocalyptic. Casualties from our interminable wars send shockwaves of pain through the community. Opioid overdose deaths leave no one untouched. The steels mills have been empty husks for three decades. Religion offers no solace, and every character is forced to choose between legalistic evangelicalism, moralistic therapeutic deism, and edgy agnosticism. In politics, left-wing nihilism and right-wing jingoism seem to be the only options left, and characters frequently call for carpet bombing campaigns or anti-Muslim pogroms with the blitheness one only hears in white Rust Belt towns. It’s more or less the novel version of Hillbilly Elegy.
One reviewer observes that, in “Ohio,” “[n]early every character delivers a speech that wouldn’t feel out of place on ‘Rachel Maddow’ or ‘Tucker Carlson,’” and indeed, Markley often allows himself to become preachy, purple, or long-winded, especially in his more lyrical passages.
But despite these minor flaws, the novel feels authentic as both as a sociological document and as a portrait of small-town life. Every character felt familiar to me, and their stories seemed to resonate with my own hometown lore. When I was a senior, a girl from the local high school stepped in front of a train. In response, the entire football team beat her abusive boyfriend half to death. I had the same degree of removal from the main characters in that story as Markley’s character have from many of the events they recount, and I’m still just as haunted by my memories as they are by theirs.