Oliver Loving: A Novel

Oliver Loving: A Novel

by Stefan Merrill Block


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Oliver Loving: A Novel by Stefan Merrill Block

"A dazzling novel about love, loss, and the mysteries of the mind."
— David Ebershoff, Bestselling author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife

"A breathtaking tale of tragedy and redemption... A triumph" — People

A family in crisis, a town torn apart, and the boy who holds the secret has been cocooned in a coma for ten years.

One warm, West Texas November night, a shy boy named Oliver Loving joins his classmates at Bliss County Day School’s annual dance, hoping for a glimpse of the object of his unrequited affections, an enigmatic Junior named Rebekkah Sterling. But as the music plays, a troubled young man sneaks in through the school’s back door. The dire choices this man makes that evening —and the unspoken story he carries— will tear the town of Bliss, Texas apart.

Nearly ten years later, Oliver Loving still lies wordless and paralyzed at Crockett State Assisted Care Facility, the fate of his mind unclear. Orbiting the stillpoint of Oliver’s hospital bed is a family transformed: Oliver’s mother, Eve, who keeps desperate vigil; Oliver’s brother, Charlie, who has fled for New York City only to discover he cannot escape the gravity of his shattered family; Oliver’s father, Jed, who tries to erase his memories with bourbon. And then there is Rebekkah Sterling, Oliver’s teenage love, who left Texas long ago and still refuses to speak about her own part in that tragic night. When a new medical test promises a key to unlock Oliver’s trapped mind, the town’s unanswered questions resurface with new urgency, as Oliver’s doctors and his family fight for a way for Oliver to finally communicate— and so also to tell the truth of what really happened that fateful night.

A moving meditation on the transformative power of grief and love, a slyly affectionate look at the idiosyncrasies of family, and an emotionally-charged page-turner, Stefan Merill Block's Oliver Loving is an extraordinarily original novel that ventures into the unknowable and returns with the most fundamental truths.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250169730
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 01/16/2018
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 197,085
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Texas. His first novel, The Story of Forgetting, won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers’ League of Texas. The Story of Forgetting was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre and The Center for Fiction. The Storm at the Door is his second novel. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt


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.

* * *

"According to science," your father spoke to the stars on that night when your story began, "our universe is only one of many. Infinite universes. Somewhere there is a universe that takes place in a single frozen second. A universe where time moves backward. A universe that is nothing but the inside of your own head."

At seventeen, you took this bit of soft astrophysics in the way you took all your father's lectures: less than seriously. Your father, an after-hours painter and teacher of art classes at Bliss Township School, had founded the school's Young Astronomers Club and more or less forced your brother and you to serve as its president and vice president. But the truth was that you shared with Pa just an artist's dreamy interest in astronomy. The constellations were mostly twinkling metaphors to you both. But that night, in his Merlot-warmed way, your father was prophetic. Your own journey into another universe, the universe where your family lost you, began very subtly. It began, appropriately enough, with the minute movements of your left hand.

Your hand. That night it was like an autonomous being whose behavior you couldn't predict. For a half hour or more, it had just lain there, but now you watched in silent astonishment as your fingers marshaled their courage, began a slow march across the woolen material of the Navajo blanket on which you were lying on a reedy hilltop on your family's ancient ranch, a two-hundred-acre patch of Chihuahuan Desert that an optimistic forbear of yours named Zion's Pastures. Your eyes hardly registered the blazing contrails and sparkles of celestial brilliance in the sky, the Perseid meteor shower falling over West Texas. Your whole awareness was focused upon your fingers, which were more interested in a different, localized phenomenon: Rebekkah Sterling on a blanket just inches from your own. You breathed deeply, her vanilla smell cutting through the land's head-shop aroma of sun-cooked creosote.

"Huh," Rebekkah Sterling said. "That is fascinating."

"You think that's fascinating." Your father then proceeded to hold forth on one of his favorite astronomical lectures, about how the basic atomic building blocks for life, everything that makes us us, was produced in the fiery engine of distant stars. But you did not need your father's lecture on the epochs of evolution. Your hand offered a better, in vivo demonstration of life's perseverance despite the bad odds. Your hand, like an amphibious creature clambering out of the primordial ocean, now began its journey over the five inches of hard earth and dead grama grass that separated Rebekkah Sterling's blanket from yours.

* * *

Rebekkah Sterling! For the year since her family had moved to town, you had been tracking her closely. Well, you tracked many girls closely in the slumped silence of your school days, but what was it about Rebekkah that set her apart? She was a very slight girl; the outline of her bones pressed against her tight skin. It was true what you would later write about her in a poem, her hair really did look like a piled fortune of amber ringlets. But she carried that hair like some burdensome heirloom her mother obliged her to wear, something that faintly embarrassed her. She'd tuck that fortune into barrettes and scrunchies, pull and chew at its ends. She seemed to spend the durations of your literature class together practicing how to make the least sound possible. When she had to sneeze, she'd first bury her head in her sweater. It was the peculiar sadness of her silence that you found so beautiful. But if not for your father's astonishing pronouncement at dinner one Monday night, your Rebekkah Sterling story would likely have ended the way all your girl stories ended, in your own, far less beautiful brand of silence.

Over the last years, the cumulative effects of disappointment, time, and the considerable quantities of the cheap whiskey Pa consumed had eroded most of your family's old traditions, but you still maintained a Monday night ritual, Good Things Monday, when each Loving, before supper, had to name one good thing to look forward to in the week to come. That night, as the burnt molasses of Ma's meat loaf had wafted from the gray slab set before you, you mustered something perfunctory about a novel, Ender's Game, which you were liking; Ma spoke of a slight alleviation of her back pain; Charlie's Good Thing was many good things, three separate parties to which he had been invited that weekend. But the only truly Good Thing you heard that night, the first certifiable Good Thing you had heard in a very long while, was your father's news.

"Looks like we'll have a visitor," Pa said.

The permanent roster of the Young Astronomers counted no member who did not share the last name Loving, but over the years, Pa had occasionally been able to cajole one of his pupils to attend a meeting. And when your father that night informed his family that he had convinced a former student of his named Rebekkah Sterling to come to Zion's Pastures to watch the meteors, you grasped your seat.

"Rebekkah Sterling?"

"That's what I said." Pa grinned. "Why? That name mean something special to you?"

"No. Or I guess something. We have English together."

Before that day you had never exchanged more than a word or two in Mrs. Schumacher's Honors Literature class. You were certain she wouldn't actually follow through on your father's invitation.

Days passed, and you tried to forget that unlikeliest possibility, tried to resign yourself to the glumness of your town in that late summer. That August represented something of a crisis point in Presidio County, but it was a crisis that had been roiling for years — generations, in fact. The border between the English-speaking north and the Spanish-speaking south might have been settled a century and a half before, but it was never an entirely peaceful distinction out in your slice of the borderland. On the white side of that divide, you'd grown up under your late grandmother's alternative Texas history, "the true story of this country they'd never teach in those schoolbooks of yours," a place where for 150 years immigrants had been building the towns and doing the menial tasks, the enduring threat of deportation used to enforce a sort of soft slavery. Granny Nunu had told you how, as recently as her own childhood, your school had conducted a mock burial for "Mr. Spanish," a ceremony in which the Latino students were made to write Spanish words on slips of paper, drop them into a hole in the earth, and bury them. "Shameful, shameful business, behind us now, thank the Lord, but you can't ever forget it," Granny Nunu told you.

But in your own childhood, these old divides hadn't seemed quite so dire. Spanish was now a required course for all students; in your grade-school days, white and Latino children were often invited to the same birthday parties. And yet, in recent years, as the cartels seized vast powers in Mexico, the white population had been fretting, with growing panic, over the stories of narcotic warfare coming from only a few miles away. Down the river, at the border town of Brownsville, police had recently found body parts of a number of Honduran immigrants scattered across the highway. Up in Presidio, local ranchers were reporting bands of cartel soldiers crossing their properties by night. Immigration had leapt to numbers unknown for generations. And as all these addled refugees came over the river, they arrived to a county blighted by lack of commerce. Ranching and mineral mining had long ago gone bust in your hometown. The only real industries left in the county were sluggish tourism, out in the state and national parks; border control enforcement; and the few local businesses that the employees of these federally funded enterprises could support. The last thing that hardscrabble Blissians wanted was a multitude of new workers, willing to toil for less-than-legal wages.

Something had to be done, was the white opinion, and so it had been a summer of a great many deportations, whole families carted from Bliss to the other side of the Rio Grande. For the TV cameras, the West Texas Minutemen — one of those jingoistic militias that patrolled the desert for surreptitious immigrants — were doing frequent demonstrations at the river, shooting their rifles into the Mexican sky.

Though this fraught border between nations lay thirty miles to the south of Bliss, another border ran down the center of your schoolhouse. Just as the towns all over your county were split in two, neighborhoods segregated by language and skin tone, you'd come to see that Bliss Township School was truthfully two schools; the honors classes were almost entirely white, the "regular" classes mostly Latino. All of the school's officially sanctioned activities — dances, football games, academic clubs — were white, and the Latino activities were mostly ones that the school officials tried to disperse: the Tejanos' daily gatherings out front, right on the schoolhouse steps, where they blasted music from their cars, causing a minor, perpetual commotion.

It was out there, just beyond the school gates, that something of a brawl had broken out the first week of school, when Scotty Coltrane and his pale cronies began barking abuse at the grounds crew. "Andale, andale!" Scotty was yelling at a lawn-mowing man when a Mexican kid crept up from behind and bloodied Scotty's nose. Under ordinary circumstances, it might have ended there, the boys called before Principal Dixon, a suspension issued, but in that tense August the fight turned into a brawl, a dozen boys piling on.

But even in this divided school, you felt yourself to be in a further subdivision all your own, a boy who wanted only to pass his days unnoticed. It was shaping up to be another lonesome year, the worst yet, until that actual miracle happened.

You had been in your father's art classroom, after school that Thursday, marking up your biology homework as Pa worked paint thinner into the student tables. Your brother was sketching something at an easel — a ballerina in a tutu, screaming as two lions devoured her legs — when he turned his head to an arrival at the door. Rebekkah Sterling stepped timidly into the room.

"Rebekkah," you said, feeling ashamed to speak her name to her face.

"So!" Rebekkah said. "Today I get to see where Oliver Loving lives."

Through a blooming blush, you watched her closely, something in her wry grin suggesting her attendance at the meteor shower must have been some kind of a joke. Or, more likely, she had only accepted your father's invitation to be kind.

But then a wondrous thing happened when Pa drove you home. "Shotgun!" Charlie yelled in the parking lot, and climbed into the front seat. And as one of the backseats was piled with Pa's collection of paper coffee cups and fast food refuse, Rebekkah and you had to sit right next to each other, your denim-clad thighs touching snugly, your leg registering each jostle with ecstatic friction.

"A couple hours till nightfall yet," Pa said when you arrived at Zion's Pastures. "Why don't you take Rebekkah for a little show-around, and we'll get the picnic ready?" He winked at you, not very subtly.

Most of the land of Zion's Pastures was just parched country, like photographs you'd seen of the islands of Greece, if someone had vacuumed away the Aegean. But you wanted to show Rebekkah your land's rare swatch of lushness, guiding her down to the fertile earth along Loving Creek. As you led Rebekkah through the machete-cut trails, your anxiety turned you into some kind of historian. "My great-great-grandfather and his family came from Wales, that's near England, and they had this crazy idea that Texas wouldn't be so different from Wales but with enough land for everyone —" You begged your mouth to silence, but it refused to quit its lectures. "This is called a century plant. Its stem supposedly shoots just once in a hundred years." You awkwardly added, "To reproduce." Rebekkah silently trailed your elbow. You elected for the most arduous paths, where many times you had to lift a branch for her to duck the tunnel of your arm. At last you came to your destination, the little creekside cave where you spent many evenings and weekends, doing your homework and writing your rhymy poems at the old poker table you had taken from the storage shed.

"Here it is," you said. "My secret lair."

"Secret lair? What are you, Superman?"

"That's the Fortress of Solitude."

"So no solitude for you, huh?" she asked. "You bring a lot of people here? It's very cool."

"You're the first. The first non-Loving, I mean."

"I'm honored."

"You should be. It's very exclusive."

Rebekkah emitted a faint "ha" and looked up to observe the fleshy knobs of the mini-stalactites that hung from the ceiling. There had been a time when your boyish imagination could make this pocket of rock seem deep with mystery, a potential burial place for the sort of lost Mexican treasure that your late granny liked to tell stories about. Now it looked to you only like a dim hollow, shallow and gray.

"Oh my God!" Rebekkah shouted, doing a frantic little skip. "A snake!"

You laughed, more loudly than you intended. "That's just snakeskin. Some rattler must have molted here." You both knelt to examine the diaphanous material, the translucent scales making miniature rainbows in the early evening light.

"Wow. It's sort of beautiful," Rebekkah said.

You poked at the iridescent rattler sheath, and the frail substance crumbled under your fingertip. Rebekkah put a hand to her face. "You ruined it," she said.


"Why did you do that?"

"It's no big deal. Snakeskin is everywhere around here. Really. We can find some more, if you want."


Excerpted from "Oliver Loving"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Stefan Merrill Block.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Oliver Loving: A Novel 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
SmithFamilyinEngland2 More than 1 year ago
Oliver Loving was shot in the head during a shooting at the Bliss County High School dance ball and left in a vegetative state, wordless and paralysed, his fate unclear. Ten years later when a new medical test promises a key to unlock Oliver’s trapped mind, the town’s unanswered questions resurface with new urgency, as Oliver’s doctors and his family fight for a way for Oliver to finally communicate — and so also to tell the truth of what really happened that fateful night. Although a little more literary and wordy than I would normally like, I appreciate that this book is beautifully written with poetic prose and intelligent narrative and that it genuinely deserves a little more attention to it when reading. "Oliver Loving" is a heartbreaking tale but equally stunning. The author Stefan Merrill Block has a created a wonderful story of sorrow, love and hope that I'm sure will be hugely successful. 3 stars
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author is a good writer but too good at relentless descriptions of so much and so many depressed people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Outstanding Book. I couldn't Put it down! Such a wonderful painting of Texas
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of those very rare books that has such emotional depth and beauty of language that it is almost impossible to describe in words. Crashing in on the desolate isolation of west Texas comes the all-too-familiar tragedy of mass school shooting. Everything is torn apart, and even ten years later no one, nor even the town of Bliss, Texas, has found any stability. Oliver Loving, lying helplessly in coma ten years after the shooting, may or may not be conscious, may or may not know the reasons for the shooting. All around him are torn asunder. His devoted mother descends into irrational behavior. His father becomes a drunken loser, isolated in the vast emptiness of West Texas. Oliver’s brother flees his home, attempting to build a new life for himself. And the town of Bliss rips apart coming to grips with the murders, exposing a vein of racism. Although the tragedies explored by Oliver are profoundly devastating, Stefan Merrill Block brings to them such a sense of humanity and empathy that the book is ultimately uplifting and clarifying. Projecting their needs and thoughts onto Oliver Loving, the boy in the coma, those around him discover the hard-earned meanings of commitment, sacrifice and love. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
SaschaDarlington More than 1 year ago
This has to be one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read in a very long time. The prose has a rhythm to it that is mesmerizing, drawing the reader into a seeming dream that eventually becomes a nightmare. Stefan Merill Block’s Oliver Loving takes on what the public seems to have become inured to, a school shooting, and raises the bar. Oliver Loving, the oldest and beloved son of Eve Loving, lies unable to move in a nursing facility where, typically, people put their elderly relatives to die. But Eve is unwilling to let Oliver go. She knows that he’s in there somewhere. It takes the youngest son, Charlie, to ask: what if he has been in there? What if he’s been conscious, able to hear and think? What then? Which is not something Eve wants to think about, nor anyone else really. There is no question as to who did the shooting, but one question is why. People are quick to become angry, point fingers, blaming it on Latinos, although he was American born. As the story continues to unfold, with bits of information disseminated along the way, it becomes obvious that nothing is easily explained. And when the truth is finally revealed, many people must look inward for what they chose and chose not to see in their community. Block cares about the characters in his novel. No one is written off. Each is dealt with kindly. I found this refreshing in a world which wants to turn the gray to black and white. A drunk is not just a drunk, he is above all a person with layers and feelings and remorse and joy. Perhaps the biggest endorsement for me of Oliver Loving is that I continued to think about it for long after I’d read the last page. If you’re a fan of thoughtful, literary fiction, I think you’ll love this book. In fact, if you’re a reader of any kind and love words well written, read this book. I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.