Brooklyn-based author Charles Bock says that in his 2008 debut novel, Beautiful Children, a dense page-turner set in his native Las Vegas, he set out to depict “the nobility inherent in struggles that cannot be won.” It’s a grace in the face of tragedy that runs through Bock’s latest, Alice & Oliver (Random House), a heartbreaking, intimate tome that the book jacket states was “inspired by the author’s life.”
Knowing that fact before reading the novel lends it even more pathos. In 1993, Alice and Oliver Culvert (so named, Bock explains, because Alice’s life “goes right into a fucking ditch”) are a cool, likable New York City couple with a sweet new baby, the wide-eyed, gurgling Doe. Alice works in fashion; her husband is a stoic basketball fan with a “piercing intelligence” and a “formidable collection of technical skills.” The pair have the prescience to become early residents of the meatpacking district (“dominated by dock thugs and frozen slabs; after dark, rotted zombie addicts held court with leather-collar sex club slaves and transvestite streetwalkers”). Alice’s and Oliver’s lives, love, and careers appear enviable and on the rise.
If it seems too good to be true, it is. A leukemia diagnosis for the young mother throws the family into a long horror of chemo, biopsies, quarantines, and central lines. Bock explores every nuance of the process with equal passion, from the despair of the insurance process to navigating romance and sex in the throes of a lengthy illness.
Bock says his goal was to write “a generous if unflinching book about life. Figuring out what we owe ourselves and what we owe each other when things really matter and are hard. Admittedly, it goes to some intense places. There is some orchestral sadness. But it’s in service of something larger, having to do with just how magic and ephemeral our everyday lives are.”
The observations from Alice’s drug- and disease-clouded perspective are especially poignant. “Someone is speaking to me now, a voice I half-recognize, and though I am familiar with his words, for some strange reason, I cannot respond,” she reports as her stem cell transplant looms. In doctors’ waiting rooms, Alice does her best to observe etiquette: “You work not to gawk at the man with no jaw…as you pass some helpless pile of bones on a stretcher, it takes all the discipline you’ve got not to stare at those sarcoma lesions, dark and purple.”
The detail, humanity, and insight — much gleaned, unfortunately, from Bock’s experience with wife Diana Joy Colbert, who died of leukemia in 2011 (he dedicates this book to her and their daughter, Lily Bock) — makes for a riveting journey. But while portions of Alice & Oliver were inspired by Colbert’s journal, the novel strays from Bock’s real-life narrative. “I did very much want a book that would eventually let my daughter know how much her mom wanted to be here for her and some of what she went through to do that,” he says. “But I also needed to try and do justice to the story that I had in my head, the novel-length piece of fiction that was gradually coming into form.”
Unlike Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Alice & Oliver is not strictly an elegy — multiple points of view and the freedom of fiction lend the novel a drama and fullness. The sense of place in both of Bock’s books is commanding; Vegas’s loss is New York’s gain, as Bock cements his place in Brooklyn’s literary legacy.