[21 April 2011]
The Kingdom of Ohio is an odd book, part historical novel, part romance, part fantasy, part pseudo-scholarly work. The debut novel from author Matthew Flaming begins with a nameless narrator addressing an unseen listener, then quickly bounces to early-20th-century New York, a noisy, smoky, squalling hive of immigrants and laborers working at the behest of rich financiers like JP Morgan.
Morgan is a character here, as are inventors Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla, but the spotlight doesn’t often fall on them—they are merely foils for the central characters. Peter Force, formerly of the wild territories of Idaho and points west, arrives in New York looking for employment, and soon lands work as part of the crew of men excavating the network of subway tunnels four layers deep beneath Manhattan. Peter has demons in his past that he flees by taking up with some of his fellows, notably Italian immigrant Paolo. Soon enough, though, his attention is distracted by a bedraggled young woman named Cherie-Anne Toledo.
Peter takes in this apparently homeless woman, transfixed by her otherworldly grace—and, it must be said, he’s also taken by the flashes of her ankles that he occasionally glimpses. She spins a fantastic, if somewhat difficult to swallow, tale concerning the titular Kingdom of Ohio. Oh sure—that kingdom. She also talks, nearly incoherently, of time travel and explosions and missing years, all of which leave Peter wondering just what he’s gotten himself into. Despite his reservations, he finds himself drawn to the young woman, knowing all the while that barriers of class—and possibly sanity—are likely to keep them apart.
It’s to Flaming’s credit that he manages to make Cherie-Anne’s tale of a lost kingdom in the wilderness surrounding Toledo into something very nearly believable. Peter is himself reluctant to believe, yet when Cherie-Anne’s adventures in New York bring them both into contact with Tesla, Edison and Morgan, he finds himself wondering if there is something more to her tale than is immediately apparent.
Hint: there is. But the secret to Cherie-Anne’s situation lies deep underground, in those same subway tunnels that have figured so prominently since the story began, and it will be difficult to reach. It is guarded by men with guns hired by men with money, and no one knows exactly where it lies, or even what it is. Peter’s experience as a laborer in the tunnels leaves him in a position to help, if he wants to—and much of the story is concerned with whether he wants to or not. He’s not exactly Hamlet, but he does go back and forth on the issue, even as Cherie-Anne takes matters into her own hands with less than satisfactory results.
Flaming exercises impressive control over all this disparate material, whether delineating historical figures like Edison and Morgan, or parsing the innnermost thoughts of Peter Force. He is adept as well at sketching both the urban landscape of New York and the wilds of the frontier. In the subway tunnels, “a reddish light is shining from somewhere underground and, silhouetted in this glow, wreathed with swirling clouds of stone-dust, each figure seems to be on fire.” Out west, Peter remembers “the ridgeline of the canyon above the river, the afternoon sunlight bright and golden against the evergreen forest of pine, manzanita, and laurel. The crunch of decomposed granite beneath the horses’ hooves.”
In the present-day storyline, that unnamed narrator traces the story of Peter and Cherie-Anne and The Kingdom of Ohio, complete with copious footnotes—about Edison, about Ohio, about events in the city—and an air of world-weariness. “Yesterday was my birthday,” we are informed midway through, “—not that the event holds much significance anymore. For the last decade, each turning of the calendar has meant the same thing: a steady progression from old to older.” Notwithstanding the narrator’s grumpiness, the connection between these two storylines, mysterious at first, becomes clear throughout the course of the story. They intertwine satisfyingly by the end.
This is not to say the book is flawless. For such dynamic material, the story is oddly airless at times, with the characters fairly impassive and flat. The middle drags on quite a bit. Much of the present-day narrator’s intrusions, which occur throughout the story, could have been trimmed without sacrificing anything. Much of this is compensated for by the book’s final 50 pages, which ratchet up the tension nicely, then ramp it up even more, finally resolving in an entirely surprising twist—before adding yet another twist for good measure. Until then, there is a bit of a slogging and more than a few lulls, but Flaming pulls off the finalé masterfully.
Readers seeking an innovative mash-up of history, romance and the fantastic could do worse than spending time with this intriguing debut novel. But it’s not a page-turner and it’s not meant to be. Rather, its pleasures are of the more cerebral, slow-percolating kind.