Stefan Merrill Block’s third novel, Oliver Loving, took him five years to write, but the roots of the novel go back even further—to his childhood in Plano, a suburb of Dallas.
In the 1990s, Plano was a rapidly growing city that was one of the first wealthy areas to be hit by the opioid epidemic. “The population changed from something like 20,000 to 250,000 in the blink of an eye,” Block says. “It became a jumble of national franchises and McMansions. It felt like growing up in a giant duty-free shop in the airport.”
Yet the McMansions hid a darker truth about Plano. “When I was a kid in the ‘80s, the press dubbed Plano the suicide capital of America,” Block says. “Then, in the ‘90s there was the heroin epidemic, which happened around the same time as Columbine. Those two events, the sudden drastic loss of life, fused in my adolescent landscape.”
Block left Texas when he went to college, yet he hasn’t been able to shake the state or the ghosts of people who never had a chance to leave.
“My parents still live in Plano, and my brother’s up the street. When I return my room’s still just as I left it,” Block says. “I felt the prior versions of myself but also the lives who’d paused.”
Oliver Loving is set in far west Texas, hundreds of miles from Plano, but still explores the terrible reality of “paused” lives. The title character is injured in a shooting at a high school dance and has spent 10 years in a persistent vegetative state. The novel explores the long-term impact of violence on small communities and the shattering effect of violence on the victim’s family. Oliver’s older brother Charlie is in New York trying, and failing, to write a book. His father has lapsed into a sad, alcoholic stupor. Eve, the mother who visits Oliver’s bedside nearly every day, is sliding into despair, depression, and a troubling shoplifting habit.
Block’s novel shifts point-of-view between different members of Oliver’s family and town and even to Oliver himself. This roving focus allows Block to explore tragedy on both the individual and community level. Oliver becoming trapped in his own brain, Eve’s downward spiral, and the town’s slow demise are all part of the story. As Block says, “It’s not a story about Oliver being trapped, but about what a lost boy means to a family.”
Eve can’t stop wondering about the shooter’s motive. The question grips Oliver's family and town, ultimately wrecking both. “There was so much Eve tried not to remember, her whole past lying stained and shattered on the floor of that schoolhouse classroom. Why? She had worked so hard not to think about it, had tried to narrow her concerns to the ten-by-ten room that held Bed Four, but almost ten years later, that question was still in the room with her, every day.”
Yet, for the novel’s weighty subject matter and dark origins, Oliver Loving remains an ultimately hopeful and moving story. Eve hasn’t given up hope that her boy is still alive somewhere in the depths of his frozen body. When a new MRI scan reveals the possibility of real brain function, Eve and the rest of the town find themselves reexamining the tragedy that came to define and ultimately ruin their community.
Block seems to have emerged from his experience with Oliver Loving revitalized. He’s currently working on his next novel and is having a great time. “It’s just so joyful,” Block says. “[Oliver Loving] was such an undertaking that I had forgotten the joy of the novel taking place on the page. There’s nothing that makes you feel as alive as watching something unexpected take place on your word processor.”
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in the Morning News, the Rumpus, the Texas Observer, the San Antonio Express-News, and many others. He recently completed his first novel.