Ten years ago the small border town of Bliss, Texas, Hector Espina walked into his former high school on Homecoming night and shot a teacher and several students, including Oliver Loving. Oliver survived if that’s what you want to call it, continuing for the next decade in a persistent vegetative state. This tragedy fractured his hometown and his family, though we learn that many of the fractures were already in place. Anglo and Latino hostility and divisions were already existent, but the shooting inflamed passions. Oliver’s father Jed was already drinking too much and retreating into depression. His mother, Eva already held her children too close, already fearing their graduation and eventual independence. Charlie already felt less loved and alienated, recognizing his rural Texas hometown might not be a safe place to come out. The family and the town were atomized by the shooting.
Ten years later, a study using an MRI found that Oliver had more brain activity than they thought. This brings Charlie home, drawing the family together in hope. Meanwhile, Manuel Paz, the local Texas Ranger, is hopeful he can finally understand why this shooting happened even though it’s too late for answers to save the town of Bliss, too late for closure, but then Manuel recognizes that “Closure was just a prayer for an ending that would never come, just a professional-sounding word for another hollow kind of faith”
Oliver Loving has moments of transcendently beautiful writing. For example, describing this border country of Texas, Charlie thinks about “All those history-crushed people. His own ancestors, trying to establish human time in the eternity of a desert that so quickly brushed it away. A wind rose from the west, a ghostly abstraction of dust lifting through the air, depositing itself over Bliss, sanding a few more grains from the façades of Main Street. Then the dust sucked up into the immaculate blue overhead, sighed off into the nothing to the east.”
Oliver Loving is also full of honesty about how racism divides a community, how tragedy can shatter so many more lives than are obvious, and how we can most hurt those we love. There is every ingredient for an outstanding and thrilling book. However, it is not. The biggest problem is that it just goes on and on far too much. The book would be twice as good if it were half as long. So much is unnecessary and repetitive. In particular, the chapters featuring Oliver, told in the second person, seem repetitive and over-written. This book is well-written enough to put Stefan Merrill Block on a list of authors to look for but in the future, someone needs a very busy red pencil.
I received an e-galley of Oliver Loving from the publisher through NetGalley.