By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
With McMansions galore, a concrete-chic urban planning model and seemingly never-ending sprawl, Plano is many outsiders' vision of hell.
But to Stefan Merrill Block, it's home, not to mention the inspiration for his debut novel, The Story of Forgetting, recently released to critical acclaim and high commercial expectations by Random House. The book concerns the travails of two characters, Seth Waller, a precocious 15-year-old in search of answers about his mother's familial early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and Abel Haggard, an aging humpback waiting for the return of his illegitimate daughter.
In the tradition of James Joyce, who abandoned his native Ireland at a young age but could never stop writing about it, Block is a 26-year-old wunderkind who got to the brink of fame in his new residence of Brooklyn, New York, by ruminating on his Texas roots. An unpublished author without industry connections, he came out of nowhere and is receiving media attention everywhere from People and NPR and The New York Times.
Though Seth lives near Austin and Abel lives in a fictional Dallas suburb called High Plains, both towns stand in largely for Plano. Some details will be immediately recognizable to locals, like Abel's last name, Haggard, which comes from the ubiquitous Plano real estate group. Near the end of the book, Seth's mother escapes from her assisted care facility and makes a frenzied run through the future site of an office park, which is patterned after the field at the corner of Windhaven Parkway and the Dallas North Tollway.
"Mom! Mom!" I yelled, running.
The field's soil, which had been used for a massive crop of soybeans the spring before, was a muddy, clumpy mess. Three times I landed, palms and chin, in the muck.
She kept on but for a moment swung her head toward me and paused, as if trying to remember whether I were her rescuer or the person she had been fleeing from the start.
Back home for a visit in mid-March, Block relaxes before U.S. and European book tours in the coming months. He visits old haunts and conducts e-mail interviews from his parents' comfortable house in West Plano, where he lived until he left for college and which boasts a pool, but doesn't rival some of its ostentatious neighbors. Bounding around the facilities is Isidora, Block's parents' new labradoodle.
One afternoon Block leads a tour of the town's wealthy, gaudy western environs in his parents' Lexus, bypassing the guarded entrance of a subdivision called King's Gate in favor of one called King's Ridge. "Don't they want a front yard?" he asks, mocking the hastily crafted faux-Mediterraneans crowded in next to ersatz Southern monstrosities. He continues past more former farm land and future cul-de-sacs. "It's so crazy to me, because this area wasn't here the last time I was in town. Not very long ago, there was nothing here, and now all this."
Further out, functioning farms butt up to luxury homes and office parks, creating the surreal scene of heifers and horses roaming amidst bustling blocks.
Similarly, Abel lives on a family farm boxed in by dream houses. Having been abandoned by the love of his life (who just happens to be his twin brother's wife) and their daughter, he sells off most of his acreage and is left with only a small bit of land and his beloved horse, Iona.
The ever-encroaching development serves as a metaphor for Alzheimer's disease, which overtakes both Abel's brother and Seth's mother, Jamie. This element of the story has a basis in reality as well; Block's mother's side of the family has been afflicted by an early-striking form of Alzheimer's for generations. In the novel, Jamie falls from a balcony into the family's living room. In reality, Block's grandmother died from falling down a set of stairs.
Block says Jamie's character is based partly on his grandmother, and partly his mother, who home-schooled Block from fourth to eighth grade and with whom he talks on the phone almost every day. Sharp, vivacious and witty, she doesn't show signs of the disease, which tends to afflict members of her family in their early 60s. She is 58.
"Each time my mom confuses my name with my brother's, or forgets a portion of conversation we had just days earlier, or temporarily loses the name of an old friend, I scurry to explanations unrelated to the span of our family's history: She's just tired, or just a little stressed, or just feeling a bit put on the spot," Block writes in the original draft of an essay called "Uncle Ralph's Rapture," recently published in London's Guardian newspaper.
He adds that he's preparing for "the possibility that I will have to watch her die as we once watched my grandmother die, not slowly exactly but in a hundred tiny pieces every day; the possibility that there will come a time when I look at her living body and debate whether she is still she; the possibility that I will one day witness my mom returned to the same oblivion to which I too will likely one day return, the same oblivion in which all the members of each generation of our family, with few exceptions, begin and end our lives."