The Wake of Forgiveness

by Bruce Machart
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The great Texas novels, epic sagas such as Blood Meridian
Lonesome Dove, must drive the bureaucrats at the
state's tourism bureau batty. They present conflicts you
would rather read about than experience first hand, and
landscapes best enjoyed in your easy chair far away from
the scenes depicted. On the coasts, the big cities draw
visitors and wannabes with their artistic legacies, cultural
icons writ large on the map with names like Hollywood and
Broadway. But you would do better
to hand over all your hard-earned
cash to J.R. Ewing before signing
up as a character in, say, a Cormac
McCarthy novel.

Readers will bring these kinds of ex-
pectations to Bruce Machart’s debut
The Wake of Forgiveness, set in
Lavaca County, Texas in the years
between 1895 and 1924. And they will
not be disappointed. Machart presents
a harsh, unpropitious land that spawns
people as unrelenting as the terrain. His
novel is both compact and of epic scope,
Faulknerian in tone, but with less sprawl
—just as the Texas soil of his tale is
more parsimonious than the lush backwaters of Yoknapatawpha

The novel begins with the death of Vaclav Skala's wife Klara in
childbirth. The year is 1895, the setting is the southeast of Texas. In
the aftermath, the widowed farmer is left with four young sons,
including the newborn boy Karel. "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 met her, one only her
proximity had ever softened." Yet, whatever the reasons, the father
raises his children with unwonted harshness. In time, he harnesses up
his four boys to the plough and treats them as little better than beasts
of burden. He has prize horses that could easily do the same labor, but
he saves them for racing, the animals receiving a coddling and
indulgence that he withholds from his own children.

In time, a
stranger arrives in town—you may recall that this is one of
the only two plots in the history of literature, according to John
Gardner (the other one is "you go on a journey")—with his three
daughters in tow. This man, a wealthy Spaniard named Guillermo
Villaseñor, wants to marry the girls off to Skala’s three oldest boys.
But the widowed father balks at losing his sons, or rather his farm
labor, but is enticed into a wager. Villaseñor proposes a race between
his own steed and Skala’s prize horse, with children of the two men
serving as jockeys. If Skala wins, he can keep his sons and also receive
a large parcel of land, but if he loses the race he also loses his three
oldest sons, who will become grooms to the young ladies.

The race changes the destinies of all parties, leading to a reverberating
series of second generation grudges and conflicts, repressed desires
and restless ambitions. The equilibrium between the two clans cannot
be maintained, and fourteen years later a new chain of violent events
lead to another escalating battle, with brother now turning against
brother. Marchart pulls on all the usual levers—money, love, blood,
respect—that lead to such divides within and between families, and
creates a powerful tale as rich in psychological nuance as it is in rugged

There is much to admire here. Machart is especially good at unfolding
his story via a series of vivid incidents, many of which could serve as
the basis for solid stand-alone short stories. And I especially like his
knack for ending a chapter on a flamboyant bit of dialogue. Given this
novelist’s grand aspirations—on display in his cross-generational story
and an elaborate prose style—this book could easily get flabby and
overwrought. But Machart, like the horse riders he describes in such
loving detail, always knows when to pull in the reins.

Machart adopts some unconventional techniques here. Most notably,
he disrupts the chronology of events, with the sections of the book
moving non-sequentially through incidents transpiring over a period of
three decades. The writing is also rich and at times extravagant.
Machart aims for grandiosity, and pushes for effects that sometimes
veer dangerously toward self-parody. But he mostly succeeds.

Not always, though: Machart has a tic of describing all sorts of events
in gastrointestinal terms. Things will happen to Karel that will make "his
insides brew as audibly as the strong coffee on the stove top" or "his
ribs chilled of a sudden so that it felt to him like his bones had been left
to soak overnight in the cistern." Or "the sight of it sank into him like
some grainy weight that made him feel in his bowels as if he’d
swallowed enough sand to flatten the rope of his guts down into
compressed coils beneath his stomach." I could give many more
examples, but as you can see from these few, our author’s manner of
describing “innards” is lively. Yet after “digesting” dozens of these
passages, the reader may need an antacid before continuing on with
the book.

They are well advised, though, to push through to the moving
conclusion, with its evocation of Steinbeck’s quasi-Biblical finale to
Grapes of Wrath
. Perhaps the biggest surprise—and most appealing
The Wake of Forgiveness is that that author finally can
finally extract so much heart and compassion out of a novel that, in its
early chapters, seems to exult in blood and guts. This is not a gentle
book—far from it. But Machart has achieved something even more
impressive here, giving us a novel with the toughest of exteriors and
the softest of centers.

Ted Gioia is the author of seven books, including Delta Blues and
The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
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since 1985

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Experimental, unconventional and
postmodern approaches to stories of
mystery and suspense