OLIVER LOVING, by Stefan Merrill Block. Flatiron Books, 395 pp., $26.99.
The state of Texas has produced, for better or worse, more than its share of legends. One of the most fascinating is 19th century cattle driver Oliver Loving, who some claim was the inspiration for the character Gus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove.” Loving was famously wounded in a Comanche attack; he died of gangrene months later.
The title character of “Oliver Loving,” the arresting third novel from Texas-raised, Brooklyn-based author Stefan Merrill Block, shares a name with the famed cattleman but not much else. He’s a shy, sweet teenage boy whose life is ended — almost — by a round from a school shooter’s gun. “A boy and also a legend: you were seventeen years old when a .22 caliber bullet split you in two,” Block writes. “In one world, the one over your hospital bed, you became the Martyr of Bliss, Texas.”
Unlike his namesake, young Oliver survives his attempted murder, but only technically. He’s locked in a persistent vegetative state, unable to communicate; the medical team that attends to him isn’t sure if he can hear or think at all.
“Oliver Loving” follows the boy’s family as they try to move on with their lives while Oliver lies unconscious in a rehabilitation facility. They’re haunted by the memory of their loved one, a “lonesome speck of a boy” who “wanted only to pass his days unnoticed.” It’s difficult for them to forget Oliver; the shooting that nearly took his life has become a cause célèbre in their hometown, “a story that people told to serve their own ends.”
The novel shifts points of view among Oliver’s family members. His mother, Eve, has become severely depressed and taken to shoplifting items she thinks her son will enjoy if and when he ever wakes up. She’s estranged from her husband, Jed, a feckless alcoholic pursuing an art career that likely will never get off the ground.
Oliver’s brother, Charlie, has moved to New York to pursue a career as an author, but he’s too interested in smoking pot and hooking up with a succession of men to get much writing done. With his rent in arrears and a menacing landlord on his back, he’s forced to go back to Bliss, where he can’t escape traces of his beloved big brother.
He soon learns that there might be some hope in store for Oliver after all. When a test reveals that the young man’s brain shows more signs of activity than originally thought, the Loving family tries in vain not to get their hopes up.
The plot of “Oliver Loving” could easily lend itself to sentimentality, but Block never falls into that trap. There’s no made-for-TV movie mawkishness, although Block proves himself a master of writing about complex emotions, employing moving but realistic dialogue: “My son is in pieces,” Eve tells an acquaintance at one point. “He’s scattered all over the world. And I have to pick them up.”
Block also wisely avoids making “Oliver Loving” just another book with a message. That’s not to say he shies away from controversial issues; he just resists the urge to preach about them. West Texas is a flashpoint of racial tension between whites and Mexican-Americans, and Block acknowledges this in the novel: “The fact was that [school shooter] Hector was a Latino with a firearm. He was a demon of white imaginings let loose.”
None of that would matter if Block weren’t a brilliant prose stylist who’s unafraid to take chances. The chapters of the book that focus on Oliver are told in the second person, which is notoriously hard to pull off. But it works beautifully here — the reader can’t help but identify with Oliver and be moved by his plight: “You couldn’t holler or swing your actual fists, but your trapped brain swung a ghost’s fists, screamed a ghost’s empty battle cry. You were only yelling into the wind, but for each day that followed, you yelled and yelled until you had exhausted yourself, fell asleep and woke up, rejuvenated for another day’s muted warfare.”
Block is an immensely talented writer, and “Oliver Loving” is a miracle of a book, a deeply generous and compassionate novel about a “lost boy, the most inexplicable victim of an inexplicable catastrophe in a vanished town, a nearly forgotten tragedy’s only living memorial.” It’s a book that asks us to think, to care, to question what it means to be alive, or dead, or something in between.