Except for its setting in rural Lavaca County, roughly midway between Houston and San Antonio, the opening chapter of The Wake of Forgiveness might have been another Dickens tale about a birth that kills the mother. Bruce Machart begins his rich and riveting debut novel with an account of how a midwife is powerless to save Klara Skala, who gives birth to a healthy baby boy, Karel. Klara was the only woman Vaclav Skala, a rancher with the largest spread in Lavaca County, ever loved. Her death embitters him, making him “as likely to spit tobacco juice on a woman’s shoes as to tip his hat at her.” Nor is he affable toward men, particularly his four sons: Stan, Thom, Eduard and Karel, whose bodies bear the brunt of his bitterness and whose psyches he scars with the conviction of guilt. “There’s nothing ever happens that ain’t somebody’s fault,” Vaclav snarls. “Even if it’s God what made a mess of things, it’s always someone to blame.”
Can an infant be blamed for the death of his mother? Can he avoid the Freudian pull toward patricide? Vaclav works his fields by harnessing all four sons to a plow. The brutal labor leaves the Skala boys disfigured, with necks “bowed over like a fern blade weighted with dew.” Their fear and fury remain contained until, when Karel is 15, the arrival of a dapper stranger arouses sibling rivalries and challenges Vaclav’s hold on his domain. An elegantly attired and smooth-tongued Mexican named Guillermo Villaseñor shows up in the South Texas Czech community accompanied by three nubile daughters, two armed thugs and a bundle of cash. Intent on marrying his daughters off to three Skala sons, Villaseñor offers Vaclav a 200-acre dowry for each of his three girls. Already the lord of 600 acres, Vaclav sneers at the proposal. As a counter-offer, Villaseñor suggests wagering daughters and acres on a horse race. Vaclav, who had already acquired 200 acres when Karel outrode a neighbor boy on a bet, agrees, though four lusty boys do not divide evenly into three eager girls. The competing equestrian skills of Karel and beautiful young Graciela Villaseñor will determine the fate of the Slavas. It is one of three thrilling horse races crucial to Machart’s novel, and each leaves readers short of breath and longing for more.
Machart, who grew up around Houston and teaches at the Lone Star College—North Harris campus, is a gifted storyteller. He draws readers into the echoing complexities of abuse, revenge and reconciliation by jumping about in time. The novel begins in 1910, but the chronological setting skips back and forth among 1898, 1910 and 1924. The physical locale, on ranches and in the towns of Lavaca County, is vividly rendered. Machart pays convincing attention to details of what could be found in stables, kitchens, saloons and churches back when most traveled by horseback and farmers moonlighted by selling bootleg beer. The dialogue is pointed and pungent, inflected by the Czech spoken by an earlier generation of settlers. “Is it someone told you to quit?” Vaclav asks Karel when, plowing, his son puts down his yoke without permission. Elsewhere, Thom Skala states: “We might all ought to keep what’s ours.” Machart locates his story in the rueful gap between ought and is.
A publicity release likens Machart to Cormac McCarthy. Both evoke the harsh appeal of the Texas landscape and the violence for which it serves as cosmic stage. Though absent mothers shape the action, Machart, like McCarthy, is intent on depicting what he calls “the scalded, dusty world of men who took their spurs off only to sleep or shit.” In such a world a father gelds a favorite horse to spite his son. The ornery Knedlik twins, Raymond and Joe, who are, according to Karel, “half a head shy on horse sense,” could be kin to Faulkner’s Snopses; they, too, are barn-burners. However, Machart has his own distinctive voice, and the territory on which he squats is not quite the same as Yoknapatawpha or McCarthy’s borderlands. Given what he has already accomplished, Machart is a prodigiously talented newcomer worth watching.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is vice president for membership of the National Book Critics Circle.