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Excerpt from Stefan Merrill Block’s new novel, ‘Oliver Loving’

"Oliver Loving" by Stefan Merrill Block. Photo Credit: Flatiron Books

Your name is Oliver Loving. Or not Oliver Loving at all, some will say. Just a fantasy, a tall tale. But perhaps those labels are fitting; maybe you were born to become nothing more than a myth. Why else would your granny have insisted your parents name you after your state’s legendary cattleman, to whom your family had only an imaginary genealogical linkage? Like yours, your namesake’s story was a rough and epic one. The original Oliver Loving, and his vast cattle empire, came to an end when the man was just fifty-four, shot by the Comanche people somewhere in the jagged terrain of New Mexico. “Bury me in Texas,” your namesake begged his trail partner, Charles Goodnight, whose name your granny later bestowed upon your brother. And so you might be forgiven for thinking that your future was foretold in the beginning. Just as the violence of your namesake’s time turned the first Oliver Loving into a folk hero, so did the violence of your own time turn you from a boy into a different sort of legend.

A boy and also a legend: you were seventeen years old when a .22 caliber bullet split you in two. In one world, the one over your hospital bed, you became the Martyr of Bliss, Texas. Locked in that bed, you lost your true dimensions, rose like vapor, a disembodied idea in the hazy blue sky over the Big Bend Country. You became the hopeful or desperate or consoling ghost who hovered over the vanishing populace of your gutted hometown, a story that people told to serve their own ends. Your name has appeared on the homemade signs pumped by angry picketers on the redbrick steps of your old schoolhouse, in many heated opinion pieces in the local newspapers, on a memorial billboard off Route 10. By your twentieth birthday, you had become a dimming hive of neurological data, a mute oracle, an obsession, a regret, a prayer, a vegetative patient in Bed Four at Crockett State Assisted Care Facility, the last hope your mother lived inside.

And yet, in another universe, the one beneath your skin, you remained the other Oliver, the one few people cared to know before, just a spindly kid, clumsy footed and abashed. A straight-A student, nervous with girls, speckled with acne, gifted with the nice bone structure you inherited: your father’s pronounced jaw, your mother’s high cheekbones. You were a boy who often employed the well-used adolescent escape pods from solitude, through the starships and time machines of science fiction. You were also a reverential son, eager to please, and you tried to be a good brother, even if you sometimes let yourself luxuriate in the fact that your mother clearly preferred you. In truth, you needed whatever victories you could win. You were just seventeen; after that night, only your family could remember that boy clearly. But yours was a family that remembered so often and well that it could seem — if only for a minute, here and there — as if the immense, time-bending gravity of their remembering could punch a hole in the ether that spread between you, as if your memories might become their own.

From “Oliver Loving” by Stefan Merrill Block. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.

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