Stefan Merrill Block on his new novel ‘Oliver Loving,’ which follows the fallout of a tragedy in a small West Texas town
If you’re a Texan, or a student of the American West, you’ll probably recognize the name of Oliver Loving, one of the 19th-century cattle drivers who inspired Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove.” Loving and his partner Charles Goodnight are still hailed as legends in the Lone Star State for their work in developing the Goodnight-Loving trail.
The title character of “Oliver Loving,” the third novel from Stefan Merrill Block, is a Texas legend of a different kind. He’s an introspective teenager who becomes something of a symbol in the fictional West Texas town of Bliss after a school shooting leaves him in a persistent vegetative state. The shooting also exacerbates tensions between white and Mexican American residents of Bliss after it’s revealed that the attacker was Latino.
Block’s novel follows the Loving family over almost 10 years as they fall apart, indulging in unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope with their grief, waiting for the return of Oliver, even as they know he’s likely never coming back.
Block, who grew up in the Dallas suburb of Plano, spoke to The Times via telephone from his home in Brooklyn. This conversation has been edited.
How did the idea of writing a novel that centers around a person who’s in a persistent vegetative state come to you?
The story of Oliver Loving is very fictionalized, but follows loosely this story out of Belgium about a man named Rom Houben. He was a media sensation around seven years ago. He was a young man who got into a severe accident and had traumatic brain injury, and entered into what doctors diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state. After more than two decades, an enterprising doctor had just come up with a new diagnostic program using a fMRI to assess levels of consciousness, and they subjected Rom to this new round of neuroimaging and stimulus tests, and found that Rom Houben’s brain responded almost like any ordinary brain. He could hear and perceive and process information.
His parents in the hospital were, on the one hand, horrified that he had been locked in his body without being able to communicate all that time; on the other hand, they were so happy at the possibility of having Rom back. So the hospital hired a speech pathologist who used a controversial technique called facilitated communication, which is where the speech therapist holds the hand of the aphasic patient. She thought she could perceive some faint muscle motion in his hand, and using that motion, began to type out Rom’s messages for him. And what came out of Rom Houben was lyrical and poetic and hopeful. He talked about rebirth. He had a book deal; he was working on a memoir. And then a professor at NYU was watching the reporting and became very suspicious, because he saw that the speech pathologist was using this very controversial form of speech therapy. Long story short, they subjected Rom to a series of tests; they showed him objects, told him stories and sang him songs while the speech pathologist was out of the room. When they brought her back, he couldn’t respond to what they had shown him.
This is the part that is really harrowing to me: Rom Houben continues to be awake and aware and trapped inside his body. The part of the story I was fixated on was Rom’s family — they must have had some sense that this couldn’t be as true as it appeared to be, it was too perfect. And yet you could understand how a family would so definitely need a lost child back that they’d be willing to believe anything. I think there’s something about that feeling that really seems so true of family generally, that we all believe in these fictions about one another; we have to in order to navigate our place in the family and in the world.
We all believe in these fictions about one another; we have to in order to navigate our place in the family and in the world.
Stefan Merrill Block
The other part of this is that I started to fictionalize this story and turn it to my novel when I’d just turned 30 and [was living] at the Dobie Paisano ranch [west of Austin], back in Texas for the first time in my adulthood, and going back to visit my hometown. Plano has a very troubled history; it was a wonderfully prosperous boomtown — over the course of my childhood, it went from like 20,000 to 250,000 people. It was the fastest growing city in America for a couple of years. But underneath all that prosperity was this tremendous darkness. In the ’80s, there was a huge spate of suicides, and Plano was dubbed the suicide capital of America in the media. And then when I was in high school, when I was among the kids, there was another spate of deaths, a huge number of kids dying from heroin overdoses.
I remember that.
Then there was another wave of suicides that happened amid that, including one friend, a couple of people I knew really well, and my school counselor. It was a time of tremendous change for me, because I was going from being a home-schooled kid in the prairie to this massive school, and being a teenager and going through all the changes that every teenager goes through. But when I went back at 30, and I was going back to my hometown and seeing the way it’s transformed even further, I felt very strongly like I was in conversation with a former prior version of myself, that 17-year-old Stefan was still kicking around somehow. I was writing this over the years, and there was always news of another mass shooting every week. In the town that I based Bliss, Texas, on, there was a school shooting during my writing of this novel. So those two things conflated; I was thinking about the legacy of loss in my hometown, and also thinking about all these other towns, and how when these events happen, the media comes, as they came to Plano, to try to make sense of these harrowing deaths, and offer what little answers they can, then they move on. I felt this somewhat political urging to try to incorporate this thing that is very present in the world into my work.
Why did you choose to set the book in West Texas?
One of the reasons I wanted to write about West Texas is that is, to me, the mythic Texas, the Wild West, the most rough-hewn, pristine part of Texas. It’s also just outrageously beautiful. If you decide you’re going to write about the Big Bend region of Texas, there are about 15 plants in that region, not so many animals, about 10 towns; you can get your arms around the place more easily than you can a place like New York City, that’s forever shifting and thwarting your ability to identify it. There’s a real pleasure in that sense of moving deeply in this one space, that I can name every blade of grass and know it so well. And it’s a very politically charged space in a way that it hadn’t been in a long time, because of the tyrant in the White House, and the threat of the wall running through the middle of the region.
It’s a very dangerous time for all immigrants, everywhere. It’s so dystopian that there’s a wall between nations and people.
Stefan Merrill Block
Do you think that the tension between white people and Mexican Americans in West Texas has gotten any better over the years, or do you think talk of the border wall has exacerbated things?
I think if you look back at the history of how Mexican Americans have been treated in West Texas versus how they’ve been treated in the past couple of decades, certainly there’s been improvement. There’s a ceremony that actually used to happen in Marfa where the Spanish kids had to write down beloved Spanish words, and the white kids dug a hole, and they had to bury their language. That kind of obvious stain for the culture has tempered, I think. Also, for a while, the immigration raids in the West Texas area had gone down, which I’m sure also resulted in less tension in the community. Now I can only imagine those things are being reversed. It’s interesting that there is right there at the border a community of very right-wing people who are looking for any opportunity to use one immigrant as an example of the problem in the whole community. It’s a very dangerous time for all immigrants, everywhere. It’s so dystopian that there’s a wall between nations and people.
Communication is at the heart of this novel, between Oliver and his family, and among his family members. Was it difficult to write these characters who find it, at times, nearly impossible to talk to one another in a productive way?
I was very conscious in this novel of trying to let my characters lead me, instead of the other way around. There’s something, as Norman Mailer says, that’s a spooky art; there’s something mysterious about how and why these people present themselves to the writer. I probably would require a therapist to know why. [Laughs.] These people all struggle with communication. And it’s more than just the struggle to communicate, it’s about the struggle between different stories. Everyone is telling themselves a story that allows their own kind of survival, and yet those stories do not match up, the way they feature as characters in one another’s stories are not the same people. That feeling of competing narratives is something I’m really curious about, in my own life and in fiction. So far everything I’ve written has always had that feeling of different stories competing with one another.
Oliver’s chapters are told in second person. For someone who can only listen and can’t talk, it seems like a natural way to do it. Were those chapters always written in the second person, or was it something you thought of along the way?
I had written the entire novel once through, in the first person, from Oliver’s perspective. I had every comma and semicolon polished to a shine and everything was in Oliver’s voice, and I liked Oliver’s voice, and I liked his character. But I then took Zadie Smith’s advice, which was to put your manuscript in a drawer for as long as it can remain in that drawer, and then pull it back out and see how it looks. I did that, and when I pulled the manuscript back out of the drawer, it felt wrong to me, it felt exaggerated. I realized that the energy of the story was never about being trapped, it was about the competing stories around the lost child, about needing to believe.
So I threw away what I had, and ended up salvaging parts of it, pieces of the original novel, in Oliver’s sections. But then I was presented with this dilemma, and for a long time I couldn’t figure out the right way forward. On one side, I thought maybe the novel should be written still all in Oliver’s first person, and somehow he’s witnessing his family in some kind of “Midnight’s Children” telepathic way, or maybe it’s all in third person. I tried it both ways, but the first way felt like it added a kind of hokiness to the whole premise that I didn’t love, and then with the third person way, it lost its intimacy. So I thought about it for a long time and took many, many long walks through the park with my head tilted to one side. And the solution was to do this thing that I hadn’t — I lead a fiction-writing workshop and I actively reject second-person stories. [Laughs.] It’s just like the most obvious thing a young writer does. But to me, the second person, you’re projecting into a space you can’t quite reach. It called into doubt the question of the story; it’s not just an unreliable narrator, it’s an unreliable narrative. And more importantly, it had that feeling of intimacy.
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
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