Oliver Loving (Block)

Oliver Loving 
Stefan Merrill Block, 2018
Flatiron Books
400 pp.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Plano, Texas, USA
Education—B.A., Washington University
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York City, New York

Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Plano, 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 (2011) is his second novel, and Oliver Loving (2018) his third. Block lives in Brooklyn. (From the publisher.)

Read author interview.

Book Reviews
In Stefan Merrill Block’s psychologically astute novel, the damaged people that surround Oliver try to piece together their own versions of what happened that night and since then, even as doctors prepare a new treatment that might help Oliver communicate again.

A moving novel of love, family, and loss, Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving pulls on every heart string and leaves no stone unturned throughout one man's quest to escape the paralysis that has ensconced him and live a normal, happy life.
Pop Sugar

Block discloses the truth…by telling [his] 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.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Block's powerful, ambitious third novel examines the … psychological trauma [of] families and communities when sudden, violent loss of life occurs.… A beautifully rendered meditation on … forgiveness.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Block has done an excellent job of building … characters and … setting, which lives vividly on the page, all heat and dust and decrepitude. [T]imely and timeless, this is an exciting story that rewards reader interest.

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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for Oliver Loving … then take off on your own:

1. Talk about the school shooting and its devastatingly long impact on the three surviving members of Oliver's family. As a parent or a sibling, do you find their responses to the trauma believable?

2. How has the shooting also affect Rebekkah Sterling? She refuses to talk about that night. As you were reading, did you find yourself becoming suspicious, wondering if she knew more than she let on?

3. Follow-up to Questions 1 and 2: In what way are all the narrators of this novel weighed down by guilt, about things they did or didn't do, the feeling that, if they'd done something differently, things would have turned out different ly? Are those reasonable, rational responses, or are they purely emotional reactions to any trauma? In other words, life is contingent: how responsible are we for much of what happens? How much of life is within our control?

4. The author uses a second-person narrative for Oliver's point of view. Why might he have chosen such an unusual, even daring (because it's difficult for a writer to pull off) narrative technique?

5. Were you able to identify with Oliver despite his extreme condition? Thought experiment: try imagining yourself in his position, prone on a bed, trapped in your body, yelling and yelling "until you had exhausted yourself, fell asleep and woke up, rejuvenated for another day's muted warfare." Would you even want to live, to wake up the next day and engage in that "muted warfare" all over again?

6. Prior to the end of the novel, how did you suppose Oliver was able to think and communicate his thoughts? Was it clear he was fully conscious … or did you think it merely an artistic conceit … or that Oliver was in a parallel universe ? Or … ?

7. What happened to the town of Bliss after the tragedy. In way did the shooting become a cause celebre, "a story that people told to serve their own ends"?

8. Eve says to an acquaintance, "My son is in pieces. He's scattered all over the world. And I have to pick them up." What does she mean?

9. Some readers/reviewers have mentioned the book's wordiness. What are your thoughts?

10. Oliver ponders from this bed:

The tragedy of love, you had learned from ten years spent looking up at your mother, is that it is only possible to love perfectly a person who is lost to you; only a lost person, lodged in a place before the narrow, clumsy gates of language, could ever understand you perfectly.

   Care to unpack that observation? What does Oliver mean? Is he correct in that "it is only possible to love perfectly a person who is lost to you"?

11. Talk about the reactions to the possibility that Oliver could be conscious.

12. Was the ending what you'd hoped for, or what you expected? Do you find it satisfying or not?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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