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 ... Oliver Loving follows the boy’s family as they try to move on with their lives while Oliver lies unconscious in a rehabilitation facility ... 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... Block is an immensely talented writer, and Oliver Loving is a miracle of a book, a deeply generous and compassionate novel... 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.
Oliver Loving, the quirky, smart, awkward, immediately likable 17-year-old main character in Stefan Merrill Block's new novel Oliver Loving, occupies the center of the book like a black hole, an absence that's also a presence, a gravitational pull so strong it swallows light and bends time ... Block's narration of all this chaos and torment is unbearably intimate – it's empathetic but completely unsparing ...not only before the shooting, when his [Oliver's] imagination and poetry filled him with hopes he could scarcely even name, but after the shooting, when Block takes readers into the world of somebody who's as completely trapped as anybody could possibly be ... A basic plot this emotionally top-heavy could scarcely help but feel manipulative, but aside from the experimental neurological procedure that features in the novel's final act, Block virtually never indulges in the exaggeration that's at the heart of cheap theater. And even when taking his characters through that one last wrench to their already-tortured hopes, Block keeps things both honest and surprising.
His [Block's] second novel, A Storm at the Door, based on Block’s own grandparents, was the tale of one couple’s World War II-era struggle with mental illness and institutionalization. Block’s newest novel, Oliver Loving, rejuggles these same themes ... The author, a graduate of Washington University, slowly and expertly draws connections, while his grieving characters can make none at all. The Lovings describe life as italicized before and after the shooting. But Block convincingly posits that the tragedy only laid bare existing family dynamics: depression, alcoholism, favoritism and an inability to listen or hear one another ... Block’s pacing and tone are remarkably even-handed through 395 pages, which softens the sometimes grisly material ... Oliver Loving, finally, is a taut and frustrating mystery in the best sense. All of life’s difficult questions are asked on these pages. How one teenager’s neighbors and family answer them is heartbreaking and will have readers holding their breath.
A school shooting: four dead, six wounded. It’s the stuff of our society’s worst recurring nightmare. And it provides the backdrop for Oliver Loving, Stefan Merrill Block’s moving third novel, the story of one family’s struggle to cope with the devastating aftermath of such a tragedy ... Block peels away the layers of concealment, both personal and communal... But in contrast to the sensationalism of our ritualized news coverage, this is a ruminative novel whose accumulating emotional force depends on the acuteness of Block’s patient character development and the unassuming grace of his prose ... For all the intensity of our collective desire to move on from each of these human-inflicted disasters, Oliver Loving soberly reminds us that there are people left behind for whom the grief and pain will never disappear.
Stefan Merrill Block frequently covers bleak territory in his novels, and his latest, Oliver Loving, is no exception. Block takes us inside the mind of a comatose West Texas teen who has been hit in the head during a mass shooting on the night of his high school prom ... But Block also has a joyfulness in his writing, perhaps a necessary component since he often mines the dark sides of life – often his own – in his literature ... That, in essence, is what Block is exploring in Oliver Loving – how a town was torn apart by ethnic tensions after the shooting; how Loving’s family fell apart; and how Oliver ended up lying in an assisted-living facility bed, with his mother, Eve, at his side, for 10 years.
What Oliver knows or doesn’t know is unclear, as he remains in a coma a decade later in a dismal facility devoted to hopeless cases. Is he locked into his paralyzed body, fully aware, or has he been gone ever since that November night? The narration of his memories leading up to the dance — which revolve around a crush on a classmate who walked away from the shooting unscathed — suggests that he’s in there, but the reader can’t be sure ... When a new MRI becomes available that may definitively resolve the question of Oliver’s consciousness, perhaps allowing him to communicate and give answers about what happened that night, it turns out that all the survivors have known, and buried, much more than they ever let on. Block has serious chops; he should trust the reader more, repeat and analyze a little less ... A topic both timely and timeless, psychologically astute and vividly rendered, with strong characters and a rich sense of place.
Block once again explores the ways in which debilitating illness breaks apart tenuous family bonds in his unsettling third novel ... Block discloses the truth of what happened at the shooting by telling the story from different perspectives. Though the lead-up to the big reveal is perhaps too long to sustain itself, the book poses big questions about what constitutes a life worth living.