The Wake of Forgiveness, the rich, evocative debut novelby Bruce Machart, doesn’t amble gently into a prolonged introduction of placeand characters, but begins bang-on in the middle of a peak scene: a messy,fatal childbirth in the winter of 1895:
Theblood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke inwet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning andglazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiledat the thought that she’d finally broken her water.
But, Machart continues, the birth was not an easy one:”When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked,he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it.”
Likewise, this novel feels as if it was torn by a bare-handedsurgeon from Machart’s fecund imagination. Story and style writhe intertwinedin a string of densely-packed sentences, the narrative itself taking on abloody, clotted life of its own. Just a few paragraphs in and readers will findit hard to tamp down the urge to compare TheWake of Forgiveness to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy—two “go-to”authors lazy reviewers pull out of their shirt pocket when they want totelegraph blurb-ready assessments. Machart is one of the few contemporarywriters worthy of that comparison, however. His labyrinthine sentences canrun-on with the best of them.
But while The Wakeof Forgiveness may unspool like another chapter from Faulkner’s Snopestrilogy, and certainly has plenty of brutal McCarthian machismo pumping throughits veins, Machart stakes his own territory in this engrossing novel whichspans nearly thirty years in the troubled life of one south Texas family.
In that crucial opening scene,immigrant farmer Vaclav Skala loses “the only woman he’d ever been fond of”and his four sons must go through the rest of their childhoods without a mother’sgentle touch to balance their father’s harsh treatment. Karel, the newborn who “kills”his mother, grows up under the disregard and blame from his three older brothersand father. Unable to shake his guilt (misplaced or not), he is raised amongmen—”for whom pain was weathered in silence and pleasure announced inexaggerated groans of relief”—never knowing the soft comfort a woman, hebelieves, would have brought to the household.
Karel finds his mother in every girl he meets. In anotherof the book’s important scenes—a nighttime horse race with his father’s land atstake—he sees his competitor, the daughter of local patriarch GuillermoVillasenor, ride up to the starting line out of the darkness: “her facerapt in a solemn beauty that reminds Karel of a memory he can’t possiblyhave…He’s seeing his mother, blond and lovely and sitting on a horse in thenight, and he can’t help now but imagine himself curled up and floating insideher, his blood an extension of hers, his bobbing movement a function of herhorse’s gait, his heart beating only so long as hers refuses to stop.”
Karel has as many “issues” as Oedipus and itwill take the entire length of the novel for him to work them out, startingwith his troubled relationship with his father. Vaclav is a hard man, made evenmore impenetrable by his wife’s death.
The townsfolk wouldassume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle manbitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only renderedhim, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity hadever softened.
He’s a man who loves hishorses more than his sons and hitches the latter to the plow to work the fieldswhile the former remain stabled. The Skala boys all grow to be misshapenmen—emotionally and physically—their necks permanently bent to the side andbearing scars from the plow harness. The entire novel is populated with harshfathers—Villasenor gives away his daughters in a high-stakes wager, and anotherman beats his son with a whip when the boy loses a horse race to Karel. Forgivenessand mercy are in short supply, but are desperately needed in a landscapeparched for human kindness.
Perhaps the key to thewhole book comes when Karel finds himself ruminating too much over the loss ofhis mother:
Heshakes his head now, scolds himself for thinking more fondly of a past thatnever happened than of a future he might occasion with hard work andhorsemanship and concentration. There are times, goddamn them, that won’t turnloose of you any more than they’ll permit you to take hold of them.
There is a lot at stake for all of thecharacters in The Wake of Forgiveness,and Machart pushes them to their limits in scenes of violent confrontation, allrendered starkly against the rough Texas frontier. Likewise, Machart’s proserips through the landscape of the book, often bordering on the archaic, butnever failing to excite the senses. Here, for instance, is Karel, waiting for asuspected horse-thief to come out of the barn: “he hunkers there with hisrifle leveled at the open door and waits while his guts work against themselvesin such a way that Karel wonders if a man can set himself afire with only thefriction of his own fears.” In another instance, rain comes down with “asound like slow-tearing parchment that grows steadily louder in its approach.”
There is more information packed in one Bruce Machartsentence than some writers’ entire stories. Machart tells you everything youneed to know about a character in the short distance between first letter andlast period. This was also Faulkner’s forte—running his sentences like countryroads winding through hills full of dips and swerves—and Machart has ablyshouldered that mantle and then set forth on his own path, one that showsthrilling promise.