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.
Read an Excerpt
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. He pulled back the quilt, a wedding gift sent six years before from his mother in the old country, and kissed Klara on the forehead before climbing from bed to light the lamp. He struck a match, and there it was, streaked down his legs and matted in the coarse hair on his thighs = dark and half-dried smears of his wife’s blood.
And it kept coming. He saddled his horse and rode shivering under a cloudless midnight sky to the Janek farm to fetch Edna, the midwife. By the time they made it back, Klara’s eyes were open but glazed in such a way that they knew she wasn’t seeing through them anymore. Her pale lips moved without giving voice to her final prayer, which entreated the child to come or her own spirit to stay, either 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. Klara was lost, and Edna tended to what had been saved, pinching the little thing’s toe to get the breathing started, cleaning him with a rag dipped in warm milk and water, wrapping him in a blanket.
Vaclav Skala stood at the foot of the bed, grinding his back teeth slowly against a stringy mash of tobacco he’d chewed flavorless half an hour before. He watched Edna, a slight young woman with narrow hips and long hair as black as her eyes. She bunched pillows beneath the dead woman’s shoulder blades and behind her head before resting the baby on his mother’s stomach. Taking one of Klara’s breasts between her thumb and finger, she puckered the nipple so the baby could get hold of it. The little thing threw his hands up about his face and worked his legs beneath the blanket, and Edna held him unremittingly to the breast until he hollowed his cheeks and found it with his mouth. “It’s no hind milk in her yet,” she said, “but he might get some of the yellow mother’s milk. We’ll be needing a wet nurse. It’s several up county who might do it.”
Vaclav stepped back into the doorway and looked down the dark hallway toward the room where his other three boys were sleeping. “We’ll be needing a hell of a lot more than that,” he said. “Let him get what’s left of her if he can. He’s done taken the rest.”
Just before dawn, after Edna had washed the body and wrapped it in clean bedding, Vaclav carried it out and up into the loft of the barn so the boys wouldn’t find her when they woke. Then he dragged the drenched mattress from the house and out through the young pear grove to the hard-caked plot of earth where he planned one day to build his stable. There, beneath the wash kettle, he kindled a fire with last year’s fallen mesquite branches. The mattress was soaked through and heavier than Klara’s body had been, and Vaclav found himself cursing its weight even while he recalled how Klara had stitched the ticking and stuffed it with goose feathers before their wedding night; how, when he lay pressed for the first time between her tender skin and the soft warmth of the bed she’d made for him, he’d startled his bride, so loud was his laugh.
Now, as the horizon gave way to the pink glow of another south Texas dawn and the mockingbirds came to life in the pear grove, Vaclav worked his knife along the mattress seam, undoing his wife’s work, as he would find himself doing for years. With several inches of the stitching cut away, he reached in and pulled out the feathers, one bloody handful after another, and fed them to the fire, which spat and sizzled before blazing into yellow flames and thick white billows of smoke.
In the near pasture, the cattle stood lowing against the fence, and had Vaclav been paying attention the way he usually did, he would have puzzled at their behavior, wondering what it was that kept them clustered against the fenceline instead of in the center of the parcel near the three square bales of hay he’d set out for them the day before. Instead, he stood staring into the fire, adding the steady fuel of feathers, looking into the flames so he wouldn’t have cause to look at his hands, which were chapped and creased deeply with calluses and stained with the blood of the only woman he’d ever been fond of.
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’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that earth became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.
With the sun breaking clear of the horizon and the ticking gutted of its down, Vaclav whittled his knife against a brick of lye soap and added a handful of shavings to the boiling kettle water. He squinted against the sharp fumes of Klara’s strong soap, and when he got the bloodstained ticking into the kettle, the water roiled and frothed red like so much sick stew.
Softly, a cool wind came up from the north and swirled the smoke around the kettle and out into the newly lit morning. Across the pasture, hidden in the far hedgerow near the creekside stand of trees, three half-starved coyotes raised their twitching snouts to catch a breeze laced of a sudden with the hot, iron-rich scent of blood. Their mouths flooded with anticipation as they hunkered their bellies low and inched forward, shifting their feet beneath them and waiting, their reticence born more of caution than patience. In the pasture, the cows went to lowing again, pressing themselves together against the fencewires.
With a twisted mesquite branch, Vaclav moved the ticking around in the boiling liquid and then threw that wood, too, on the fire. When he turned toward the house and weaved his way through the grove, he found the back door swung open, his three young boys standing just inside wearing nightclothes and wet cheeks. The oldest, Stanislav, was only five, but he held on to his brothers’ shoulders the way a father would. The wind gusted enough to ripple -Vaclav’s shirt, and when it calmed he heard the baby crying inside. Standing in the bare yard, he took his plug of tobacco from his shirt pocket and tore off a portion with his teeth. Edna appeared behind the boys and turned them away from the door. “Their breakfast’s gone cold on the table,” she said. “They’re asking after her.”
He nodded and spit tobacco juice into the hard earth near the porch, and then, without washing his hands or taking off his boots, he stepped into the house where, for all but one wailing newborn, as in the pasture and the hedgerows, even hunger had been plowed under by fear.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
"A mesmerizing, mythic saga...”—New York Times
“In his luminous and wrenching tale of four motherless brothers, Machart skillfully evokes the rural Texas landscape...”—Entertainment Weekly
“Bruce Machart has penned a dazzling, gratifying tale of retribution, redemption and morality.”—San Antonio Express News
“This is pure literature; an emphasis on language over plot; risky, complex and often unlikable characters and that echo, that ripple that flows forward into the future and backward into myth.”—Los Angeles Times
“Such evocative prose helps make Machart's novel a standout this year, in any genre.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Machart writes fine idiomatic dialogue and unwinds textured details of farm life, horse racing, and the vagaries of the weather.”—Houston Chronicle
“The big state of Texas is home to many good writers, and the arrival of Bruce Machart's debut novel shows there's always room for one more.”—Dallas Morning News
"Machart's prose is so evocative that you can smell the men's cheap tobacco and corn mash, feel the bare, hard-packed earth from which they coax crops. Their dialogue, rural south Texas vernacular, is spare, gnarled and often funny. In addition to the violence, betrayals and cruelty of an old-fashioned western, The Wake of Forgiveness also finds redemption ..."Wall Street Journal
"This intense, fast-paced debut novel is hard to put down. Machart's hard-hitting style is sure to capture fans of Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. We can only hope for more exceptional fiction from this very talented writer. Enthusiastically recommended."STARRED, LIBRARY JOURNAL
"... [an] accomplished debut ... Machart's moving story unfolds lyrically and sensually, with little fanfare, as his thoughtful prose propels a character-driven story about family, morality, and redemption."STARRED, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
"The Wake of Forgiveness impressed me on many levels. The prose is polished and evocative, the physicality of rural Texas in the year 1910 shimmers with loving exactitude, and the story of Karel Skala is a gripping American drama of misplaced guilt, familial struggle, and a search for identity. At the heart of this remarkable novel is a question that is both age-old and completely modern: Who am I? What a fine, rich, absorbing book."Tim O'Brien "If Evan S. Connell, William Faulkner, and Norman Maclean had been born as one person, he might possess the extraordinary gifts of Bruce Machart. The Wake of Forgiveness is a wild, God-forsaken cry delivered in language so lush we cannot stop listening. The dazzling velocity of Machart’s prose bears a tale redemptive and resonant as myth, insistent and intimate as breath in the body. With fierce grace and uncompromising passion, this visionary young writer offers the reader the mercy of his own heart and the capaciousness of mind that makes it possible to love the lost without fear or judgment."Melanie Rae Thon "In his richly told novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, Bruce Machart tells a story of fathers and sons that stretches wide across the Texas landscape, leaving behind its own beautiful wake of remembrance , inheritance, and the unbreakable bonds of family."Hannah Tinti