Tuesday, September 27, 2011

About the Human Heart

This past weekend was one of those dictated by the spell of a new book temporarily eclipsing everything outside the fertile flatlands of south Texas and the hardworking farmers, the indelible characters of Bruce Machart’s first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness. That it is a first novel is almost as surprising as the controlled power of it’s 309 pages. Let us hope that its author has shown us only a preview of his talent and the books to come. The Wake of Forgiveness is epic in it scope, its story rippling with themes of loss, anguish, and redemption of the human heart. But then, it is about so much more.

Machart’s writing brings to mind all at once Greek tragedy, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf and William Faulkner—monumental comparisons for a first time novelist who all the same pulls it off with style to spare. At its root level, the novel is about the bonds of family, particularly between fathers and sons, but no less between mothers and sons and in small part the bond between brothers. For all its magnificent elegy, The Wake of Forgiveness is a brutal tale of family instability and the ties that bind people to their land. Machart reminds us of the rough ride ahead with his use of scriptural aphorism. At one point it is the harsh injunction from Lamentations, ‘It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope.’ As if that were not enough he reminds us of the words of Jeremiah, ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’

It is the story of the Skala family, hardworking Czech farmers in Lavaca County, Texas. In the fictional town of Dalton, 1895, a fourth son is born to Vaclav and Klara resulting in the death of the mother. With the loss of the only person he ever felt love for, pain shuts Vaclav down, and he turns from the newborn son he has named Karel, refusing even to hold or touch him. In a shift of chronology, we see them next in 1910 when the embittered father has begun using Karel and his brothers like draught horses cinched into traces dragging a plow behind which their father cracks a whip. The mark left on the four boys is their crooked necks, a permanent twisting brought on by the years of mule-like labor harnessed at a plow. Karel grows and becomes a skilled horse rider, racing to win more land for his always distant and violent father. In one last race when the boy is fifteen, a loss drains the last cup of loyalty and affection between Karel, his three brothers, and his father. Machart moves his story ahead to 1924 when the father is dead, Karel has his own family and remains estranged from his brothers, one married to the girl who brought Karel to manhood.

The story moves back and forth between 1895, 1910 and 1924, never less than a seamless tale knit with tension in its wringing of strained relationships. But we are not left with a complete tragedy, as the four brothers find a way through the vivid fire-driven climax to reclaim a promising shred of their family bond.

There is so much in Machart’s writing that stirs the blood—the wide open spaces of south Texas, the beauty of a horse streaking through rain and moonlight, the grit of farming and ranching. Open the book anywhere and pull randomly from the page passages that vibrate with the writer’s language. Taken out of the story and read independently the pulse of life is intact. Warning of a change in weather Machart writes…

‘The sky hangs swollen and sickly above the distant horizon as if the whole mass of the heavens has been wounded and gauzed with clouds and backlit feebly by the diminishing moon.’

In description of a character we read…

‘Henry wore an ambitiously waxed mustache that seemed to curl around the sides of his mouth like some invertebrate creature that had slithered through cold, congealed oil only to find itself mired on a simple man’s face.’

Grappling with his troubled memories Karel at one point flounders…

‘There are times, goddamn them, that won’t turn loose of you any more than they’ll permit you to take hold of them.’

Machart has stated that he began The Wake of Forgiveness because he wanted to understand why the landscape and the vernacular of rural south Texas triggers in him such a sense of longing. I hope he reached the understanding he was searching for, but in the event he didn’t quite find a complete answer, it is abundantly clear that he has brought to his readers a depth of observation and insight about not just the Texas landscape or its vernacular, but also about the human heart.


  1. Oh, yes, easily one of the best constructed novels and a great read and deserves its place among all "the best of the year" lists. Not much more I can add to a great review. The discovery of a writer this talented is always a thrill and quite an achievement for the author to join a list of writers whose next book is always anticipated.

  2. A great book review. It makes one curious to know how the hatred and cruelty of the father to his sons could happen and how their hearts were affected. It has to have had an effect on him and those of their own families.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America