On the eve of his first novel, The Story of Forgetting, I spent a few days in Plano with Stefan Merrill Block and his family reporting the May 1, 2008 Observer cover story, "Forget Me Not." Block is one of the most acclaimed young writers to come out of Texas (he now lives in Brooklyn), and Forgetting resonated with readers around the world, becoming a best-seller in Denmark, Italy, Germany and France.
Its story concerned the young protagonist's mother's battle with familial early-onset Alzheimer's, and Block used elements of his own family's history in the work. Similarly, his sophomore novel (released today), The Storm at the Door, is a fictionalized account of real life events, its characters drawn again from Block's blood relations.
The main character, Frederick Merrill, stands in for Block's actual grandfather, who during the 1960s spent time in Massachusetts' McLean Hospital, which is called Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill in the book. Diagnosed at one point with manic depression, Merrill is a charismatic and mercurial force, and his push-and-pull relationship with his wife Katharine - who stands in for Block's grandmother -- becomes the focus of the story.
Like McLean, Mayflower is no ordinary asylum. It is populated with wealthy and intellectual characters, who receive cutting-edge treatment on scenic grounds. (Poet Robert Lowell, in fact, was in attendance at the same time as Block's grandfather, and shows up here as a fictionalized version of himself.)
Nonetheless, Merrill is more-or-less imprisoned within after drunkenly flashing passing cars after a party. It is the final straw for a family that has put up with his alcoholism, womanizing, and generally-unpredictable behavior for too long. But Katharine grows to regret her role in institutionalizing him; though their relationship is far from perfect, being apart from him is worse.
The book is part love story, part commentary on the fleeting nature of sanity, and part dissection of the tug-of-war we all feel between being free and being responsible. For Merrill, the buttoned-up, proper life is no life at all.
Block's tremendous skills are on display here; as in Forgetting, each of the narrative layers integrate gracefully into the book's superb ending. It's a very serious book that carefully respects the people and institutions represented, but a focus on story and symbolism is always at the front. The technique of fictionalizing his own family history succeeds in The Storm at the Door just as it did in Forgetting, and this is largely due to the strength of its characters. They are drawn equally through the lenses of family lore, research, and compassion.
Storm at the Door is available for purchase today. Stefan Merrill Block will offer a reading and book signing session 7 p.m. Thursday, July 7, at Barnes & Noble Plano.