The Wake of Forgiveness, the rich, evocative debut novel by Bruce Machart, doesn't amble gently into a prolonged introduction of place and characters, but begins bang-on in the middle of a peak scene: a messy, fatal childbirth in the winter of 1895:
The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at 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-handed surgeon from Machart's fecund imagination. Story and style writhe intertwined in a string of densely-packed sentences, the narrative itself taking on a bloody, clotted life of its own. Just a few paragraphs in and readers will find it hard to tamp down the urge to compare The Wake of Forgiveness to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy -- two "go-to" authors lazy reviewers pull out of their shirt pocket when they want to telegraph blurb-ready assessments. Machart is one of the few contemporary writers worthy of that comparison, however. His labyrinthine sentences can run-on with the best of them.
But while The Wake of Forgiveness may unspool like another chapter from Faulkner's Snopes trilogy, and certainly has plenty of brutal McCarthian machismo pumping through its veins, Machart stakes his own territory in this engrossing novel which spans 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's gentle 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 brothers and father. Unable to shake his guilt (misplaced or not), he is raised among men -- "for whom pain was weathered in silence and pleasure announced in exaggerated groans of relief" -- never knowing the soft comfort a woman, he believes, would have brought to the household.
Karel finds his mother in every girl he meets. In another of the book's important scenes -- a nighttime horse race with his father's land at stake -- he sees his competitor, the daughter of local patriarch Guillermo Villasenor, ride up to the starting line out of the darkness: "her face rapt in a solemn beauty that reminds Karel of a memory he can't possibly have…He's seeing his mother, blond and lovely and sitting on a horse in the night, and he can't help now but imagine himself curled up and floating inside her, his blood an extension of hers, his bobbing movement a function of her horse's gait, his heart beating only so long as hers refuses to stop."
Karel has as many "issues" as Oedipus and it will take the entire length of the novel for him to work them out, starting with his troubled relationship with his father. Vaclav is a hard man, made even more impenetrable by his wife's death.
The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara's death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he'd been before he'd met her, one only her proximity had ever softened.
He's a man who loves his horses more than his sons and hitches the latter to the plow to work the fields while the former remain stabled. The Skala boys all grow to be misshapen men -- emotionally and physically -- their necks permanently bent to the side and bearing scars from the plow harness. The entire novel is populated with harsh fathers -- Villasenor gives away his daughters in a high-stakes wager, and another man beats his son with a whip when the boy loses a horse race to Karel. Forgiveness and mercy are in short supply, but are desperately needed in a landscape parched for human kindness.
Perhaps the key to the whole book comes when Karel finds himself ruminating too much over the loss of his mother:
He shakes his head now, scolds himself for thinking more fondly of a past that never happened than of a future he might occasion with hard work and horsemanship and concentration. There are times, goddamn them, that won't turn loose of you any more than they'll permit you to take hold of them.
There is a lot at stake for all of the characters in The Wake of Forgiveness, and Machart pushes them to their limits in scenes of violent confrontation, all rendered starkly against the rough Texas frontier. Likewise, Machart's prose rips through the landscape of the book, often bordering on the archaic, but never failing to excite the senses. Here, for instance, is Karel, waiting for a suspected horse-thief to come out of the barn: "he hunkers there with his rifle leveled at the open door and waits while his guts work against themselves in such a way that Karel wonders if a man can set himself afire with only the friction of his own fears." In another instance, rain comes down with "a sound like slow-tearing parchment that grows steadily louder in its approach."
There is more information packed in one Bruce Machart sentence than some writers' entire stories. Machart tells you everything you need to know about a character in the short distance between first letter and last period. This was also Faulkner's forte -- running his sentences like country roads winding through hills full of dips and swerves -- and Machart has ably shouldered that mantle and then set forth on his own path, one that shows thrilling promise.