“Oliver Loving,” Stefan Merrill Block’s exhilarating and poignant new novel, recounts the incident in which a disturbed young man walks into the school dance at Bliss Township School in West Texas and leaves in his wake a devastated school and township. It is, of course, a plot straight from recent headlines, but “Oliver Loving” is about so very much more.
It is about the West Texas landscape. In fact, the shared history of the diverse cultures, of the haves and have-nots, of the persistent bleakness and “headshop aroma of sun-cooked creosote” will remind readers of the early novels of Larry McMurtry, like “The Last Picture Show.”
But like those McMurtry works, “Oliver Loving” is also very much about the redemptive power of family and about hope.
Oliver Loving rests immovable and immutable in Bed Four of a ward at Crockett State Assisted Care Facility. He has been paralyzed and in a coma since the November night of that school dance. Soon after the incident that brought him to the facility, he was besieged with visits from surviving students and teachers, as well as members of Bliss Township.
But now it is suddenly 10 years later.
Oliver’s family has found their several ways to deal with the reality of his situation. His mother Eve atones for her lack of warmth by shoplifting items that she will store in the attic of her home. Jed, his father, is a former art teacher and amateur astrologist who retreats farther and farther from the family and further and further into drink and his own clinical depression. Oliver’s brother Charlie escapes to New York City, where he hustles a book contract to set down Oliver’s story.
Then there is the persistent Manuel Paz, “Presidio County Captain of the Texas Rangers,” who can’t quite give up asking “Why?” about the incident. There is speech therapist Margot Strout, who is convinced she can open the door to Oliver’s imprisoned mind. There is Rebekkah Sterling, who is the real answer to Manuel Paz’s big question.
And there is the new test that perhaps promises to return Oliver to his family and to his town.
“Oliver Loving” reads like a thriller — and it is: Lies abound. Secrets are kept. Lives hang in the balance. But what rivets the readers to its pages is the novel’s generosity of spirit as it tells not only Oliver’s unremarkable history, but how that history, in the final analysis, brings about a reconstructed family with a reconstituted hope for the future.
Chapters of the book are devoted to various characters. Even the comatose Oliver is movingly recreated in some of Block’s best passages. In fact, at the novel’s end, Oliver’s passages as he guides his family to the “single spot of brightness” that will make them a family again will make readers absolutely addicted to the virtuosity of Block’s words.
“Oliver Loving” is very much about dealing with what Block argues is “that immeasurable heaviness to which all your memories return. No use trying to fight its intractable sway.” And once that heaviness ceases to be ignored …
“Oliver Loving” will leave any reader totally invested in its pages. When was the last time a book so unconditionally and so unaffectedly accomplished that?
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.