Ten years later, a school shooting in West Texas is revisited from the perspective of a family it changed forever in Stefan Merrill Block’s “Oliver Loving.”
What we know, what Eve Loving, her husband, Jed, and their son, Charlie, know, is this: a recent graduate named Hector Espina Jr. returned to the Bliss Township School campus the night of the homecoming dance, shot the drama teacher and three of the students who were rehearsing with him, ran into Oliver Loving in the hall and put a bullet in his head and then committed suicide. 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. The intervening decade has not been good to the town of Bliss or to any of the Lovings. The high school never reopened, and the town’s Latino population fled the wave of xenophobia that arose from the incident. Eve Loving has become a wasted, martyred woman who compulsively pulls out her eyelashes and shoplifts books and electronics as gifts for her son when he awakens. Jed and she are separated; he’s tumbled ever further into alcoholism, silence and fruitless attempts at making art. Charlie Loving, 13 at the time of the tragedy, eventually gave up on trying to stanch his parents’ emotional wounds and fled to the East Coast, where he has been trying to write a book about his brother with no success at all. 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 (“The Storm at the Door,” 2011) has serious chops; he should trust the reader more, repeat and analyze a little less.
“Oliver Loving” touches on a topic both timely and timeless, psychologically astute and vividly rendered, with strong characters and a rich sense of place.
(Block will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Jan. 31 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
A defining moment of violence inextricably links the lives of three young adults in Christopher J. Yates’ (“Black Chalk,” 2015) psychological thriller “Grist Mill Road.”
“I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as 10 minutes. I just stood there and watched.” Yates’ novel begins with this visceral description that immediately establishes a complex relationship not only between Patrick, the narrator of these lines, and Matthew, his friend and the perpetrator, but also between memory and the truth. The novel cuts between a first-person narrative of Patrick at 12, documenting the events that led up to this shocking BB gun attack, and a third-person narrative of Patrick and his wife, Hannah, in 2008. As newlyweds, they are trying to find their way through the economic collapse and Patrick’s loss of his job; Hannah is a reporter interested in writing a true-crime book. She is also the victim of the earlier crime, and while she knows about Patrick’s connection to Matthew, she has no idea that he actually witnessed what happened and failed to stop it. Much of the book explores the ways in which they individually struggle to come to terms with and exorcise guilt before the past can destroy their present and future happiness. If this sounds complicated, it is — humanly complicated and narratively complicated — but successfully and movingly so. Yates manages to take a brutal incident and, by the end, create understanding for all three major characters involved: the victim, the perpetrator and the witness. By doing so, he drives home the messages that truth is always subjective and that true, compassionate love is always redemptive. It’s the compassion part, he argues, at which most of us tend to fail.
Mesmerizing and impossible to put down, this novel demands full attention, full empathy and full responsibility; in return it offers poignant insight into human fragility and resilience.
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