Ten years ago, Stefan Merrill Block debuted with an award-winning novel, “The Story of Forgetting,” that asked familial and scientific questions about Alzheimer’s disease against a backdrop of McMansions obliterating Texas farmland.
His second novel, “A Storm at the Door,” based on Block’s own grandparents, was the tale of one couple’s World War II-era struggle with mental illness and institutionalization. Block’s newest novel, “Oliver Loving,” rejuggles these same themes.
The book’s eponymous Oliver Loving is a current-day small-town Texan named for the real-life legendary cattle rancher. At 17, Oliver is the victim of a high school shooting. He survives, but his body is paralyzed and his mind “locked in” a persistent vegetative state. He spends the next 10 years in a “ten-by-ten room” at the Crockett State Assisted Care Facility. “The horror was absolute and unacceptable.”
Medical professionals and Oliver’s family anguish over whether it is wise or foolish to attempt communication with “the boy who fell through a crack in time” using functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography.
While they debate, “putting it off became its own kind of superstition” and procrastination becomes hope. Equally fraught, law enforcement and townspeople ache to understand how and why the shooting took place. Unable to move past the unknowable, they all — like Oliver — wither in place, undergoing a willful deterioration.
The author, a graduate of Washington University, slowly and expertly draws connections, while his grieving characters can make none at all. The Lovings describe life as italicized before and after the shooting. But Block convincingly posits that the tragedy only laid bare existing family dynamics: depression, alcoholism, favoritism and an inability to listen or hear one another.
In his entrapment, Oliver serves as an object lesson. He’s a passive listener to those who won’t hear, unable to tell his secrets. He embodies how indecision becomes the decision. How “blinkering” and limiting oneself in survival mode, doing only what is required on a daily basis, makes one “a little unhinged, blinding them to the damage they wrought.”
Block’s pacing and tone are remarkably even-handed through 395 pages, which softens the sometimes grisly material. It is another way he joins and connects: showing readers that the daily and the dramatic are not necessarily two different entities.
“Oliver Loving,” finally, is a taut and frustrating mystery in the best sense. All of life’s difficult questions are asked on these pages. How one teenager’s neighbors and family answer them is heartbreaking and will have readers holding their breath.
Holly Silva is a St. Louis editor.