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.
Nearly 10 years after he’s shot in the head at the high school homecoming dance in the small West Texas town of Bliss, Oliver Loving, now 27, lies paralyzed and mute at Crockett State Assisted Care Facility. His parents’ marriage fractured long ago, and his younger brother wrestles with the nearly impossible challenge he’s set for himself: finding the words to tell his brother’s story in a way that will, if only figuratively, bring him back to life. A glimmer of hope that Oliver may be emerging from his locked-in state only thrusts the Lovings deeper into crisis.
Block peels away the layers of concealment, both personal and communal, that have masked the truth about what led Hector Espina Jr., a recent graduate of the high school, to return one otherwise uneventful evening with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and wreak havoc on an entire town. 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.
As periodic eruptions of gun violence surface randomly and inexplicably across our national landscape, it seems the horror of one is barely grasped before the next arrives. 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.