Reviewed by Joanna Rose
The Kingdom of Ohio is a strange and wonderful first novel by Portland writer Matthew Flaming. It is a story within a story, beginning with an antiques dealer in present-day Los Angeles who discovers an old photograph and is suddenly forced to confront a past that not even he finds believable.
In 1901 in New York City, Peter Force, newly arrived from the Idaho frontier, gets work on a crew digging the first subway tunnel beneath the city. He is befriended by the men who perform the brutal work of hammering through rock by day and gather by night in public houses to drink smash (a mixture of benzene, turpentine, alcohol and cocaine) and rage against the cruelly anti-labor power structure. The city is a terrifying wonder:
It is the biggest Italian city in the world, the biggest Jewish city in the world, the biggest Polish city ... the accretion of humanity, the burgeoning accumulation of metal and stone and concrete, and sheer, constant motion.
Force becomes a mechanic, working on the huge machines that power the rock hammers, and he comes to perceive the almost human individuality of each machine. At the same time, he observes the machinelike movements of the human beings around him, the women in the bars, the conversations among men and the city itself rising above him.
It is New York's Gilded Age, and the city is in the throes of the second Industrial Era. Visionaries such as the power-mad J.P. Morgan and the fiercely competitive inventors Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison converge here in a plot to control the future. And drawing Force into the plot is a princess from the lost Kingdom of Ohio, Cheri-Anne Toledo, a mathematical prodigy who claims to have landed in New York City, practically at Force's feet, by way of a malfunctioning time machine.
This novel is maddeningly dreamy. It is part-alternate history, part-fantasy and part-love story, all heavily footnoted. I was constantly pulled between narratives and anxious to land in a time or a place, just like the unnamed first-person narrator, who stumbles around trying to decide how to tell the story, and just like Peter Force. The story's leading edge is always uncomfortable, and as the lives of Peter Force, Cheri-Anne Toledo, and the present-day narrator draw closer together, the suspense builds, and the inevitable ending arrives with a shock.
Matthew Flaming works in a gritty, poetic style. His relentless descriptions of New York at the dawn of the Technological Age depict a gloriously harsh time and place, and he daringly weaves in the poetry of Hart Crane, Goethe and Dante.
This is a deeply imagined novel, full of twists and turns and leaps of perspective that shouldn't work, but do. The Kingdom of Ohio takes on time and its possibilities with a philosopher's stance.
Books mentioned in this post