David Stuart MacLean's debut novel, "How I Learned to Hate in Ohio," opens with its narrator, Baruch, having a rough first day of high school. His mom is absent, constantly traveling for work. Dad is a philosophy professor lamenting life in adjunct limbo. Baruch has tried to get his peers to call him Barry, but nobody's biting. Instead, he's stuck with his old nickname, a homophobic slur. A squabble with a counselor gets him suspended.
It's 1985, and the only bright spot he sees in a blighted land is that a teacher will soon take a ride on the Space Shuttle. If you know about 1986, you know how that goes.
Barry — let's do the kid a favor — has mastered the deadpan, sick-of-it-all tone that became Gen X's official voice. ("They put chili on pasta in Cincinnati. They were used to exotic things there.") But although "Ohio" is set 35 years ago, MacLean intends to speak to the present. The novel is girded with themes of racism, economic inequality and political division, suggesting that our current fractured moment is exemplified by mid-'80s Midwest suburbia, practically built on an assembly line there.
Barry's partner through this allegorical turf is Gurbaksh, aka Gary, a Sikh classmate who's recently moved to town. Gary is a target for ignorant gibes — the locals think he's Muslim. But he also carries himself less anxiously than Barry, landing the girl Barry couldn't and arranging get-togethers between the two families. Gary only underscores Barry's feeling of ineptitude: "People just naturally avoided and despised me like a Band-Aid in the pool," he explains.
For a while, this setup feels a little low-stakes and after-school-special-ish, the novel threatening to drift into a rote if entertainingly snarky tale of cross-cultural understanding. But MacLean patiently piles on the calamities, which tend to relate to bad decisions by adults with confused senses of loyalty and accomplishment. (Not for nothing is Barry writing an English-class essay about "The Great Gatsby.")
When Barry escapes his house and connects with a druggie set of college kids, it practically smacks of sanity and ambition.
The downcast latter chapters of the novel are observant and piercing set pieces about suburban malaise and economic drift, punctuated with starker themes of death and abandonment. Can literary fiction set in Ohio be anything else these days? Recent novels like Stephen Markley's "Ohio" and Celeste Ng's "Little Fires Everywhere" have used the state as a crucible for prevailing threats to our national sense of well-being.
It's become a well-worn trope now that the state is a "battleground," and novelists have imagined some familiar battles for it. But MacLean distinguishes himself with his voice — that is, Barry's voice, at first sarcastic and distant, then earnest and ultimately heartbroken. Confronting one tragedy, he thinks of taking "the opposite of a Polaroid of that — a memory that I wanted to instantly fade and disappear." But he's learned, as we've learned, that the errors of the past have a way of sticking around.
Mark Athitakis is a book critic in Arizona.
How I Learned to Hate in Ohio
By: David Stuart MacLean.
Publisher: The Overlook Press, 256 pages, $26.