by Stefan Merrill Block
Flatiron Books, 2018
Oliver Loving, the quirky, smart, awkward, immediately likable 17-year-old main character in Stefan Merrill Block's new novel Oliver Loving, occupies the center of the book like a black hole (kudos to Keith Hayes for his Flatiron Books US cover design showing exactly that), an absence that's also a presence, a gravitational pull so strong it swallows light and bends time. Oliver lives in Bliss, Texas with his father Jed, his mother Eve, and his brother Charlie, and he's making his way through the relatively ordinary life of an optimistic, bookish teenager when everything suddenly changes. He attends the Bliss Township Homecoming Dance in hopes of talking with Rebekkah Sterling, but when a troubled young man named Hector Espina goes to the dance and opens fire with an assault rifle, several of Oliver's classmates are killed – and Oliver himself is left in a coma, lying in a bed at the Crockett State Assisted Care Facility.
As the years stretch to a decade, as the myth of the martyr of Bliss grows, as the dark gravity of the body in Bed Four at Crockett State increases with every dashed hope and failed neurological exam, with every report of steadily diminishing cranial weight, Oliver's family and friends fly off into odd, uncontrollable orbits. His father takes to drink as the years wear on; his brother Charlie, intermittently hopeful of crafting Oliver's story into a book he can sell, embarks on a series of fractious gay relationships; most tragically of all, his mother Eve descends into a tightening spiral of crazed sadness and even more crazed hope:
After her years of confined life at Desert Splendor [“a failed subdivision of unoccupied homes and half-built house skeletons”] and Crockett State, after a decade-long conversation with her silent son, Eve better understood her husband and her boys, understood what smallness and silence could make you believe. How you could come to read your life like an invisible text. How you could forever turn one ear to the sound of a lost voice. How that voice, once you began to hear it, would never stop speaking to you in its mysterious ways.
At the heart of it all is Oliver himself, “a boy connected to life by electronic umbilicals, his eyes searching in that terrible lost way, his arms snarled like those of a tyrannosaurus.” Block's narration of all this chaos and torment is unbearably intimate – it's empathetic but completely unsparing. As the narrative's own orbit alternately wobbles and whirs around still, quiet Oliver, we learn more about the monster gunman (and about the monsters in his own past), more about Rebekkah's life after the Homecoming Dance that left both a boy and an entire town paralyzed, more about Charlie's ungainly attempts to learn about himself (some of his scenes in the second half of the novel really stand out), and, in a heartbreaking gambit Block is careful not to overplay, more about Oliver himself – not only before the shooting, when his imagination and poetry filled him with hopes he could scarcely even name, but after the shooting, when Block takes readers into the world of somebody who's as completely trapped as anybody could possibly be.
A basic plot this emotionally top-heavy could scarcely help but feel manipulative, but aside from the experimental neurological procedure that features in the novel's final act, Block virtually never indulges in the exaggeration that's at the heart of cheap theater. And even when taking his characters through that one last wrench to their already-tortured hopes, Block keeps things both honest and surprising. There's a little twist of irony in citing how memorable a novel Oliver Loving is, since it's memory that torments all these characters in one way or another. In his Acknowledgements, Block thanks 40 individual people, several families, and a dozen institutions for being “essential” to the writing of his book, but the book itself speaks with a single clear and compelling voice.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.