IT SEEMS THAT ANY debut novel written in recent times with rugged, rural subject matter is destined to be compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy. The influence is immediate and forceful: one seldom has to wonder whether a given author has read him. But in Bruce Machart’s The Wake of Forgiveness, the yoke of McCarthy is quickly shrugged off. The book treads upon his physical territory, granted, but Machart’s fictionalized Lavaca County is populated by a harder, less romantic people than readers of the Border Trilogy are used to. Devoid though he is of sentimentality, Machart delves into an area McCarthy seldom reaches — that of family — in a classic story about coming out from under the weight of tragedy both monumental and quotidian.
The Wake of Forgiveness begins with the birth of Karel Skala, the book’s protagonist, at the turn of the last century. His birth kills his mother in a painfully and beautifully wrought scene, and her death forms the heart of the novel. Karel as a child and man is left constantly wanting for comfort, and his father Vaclav is “rendered … again, the man he’d been before he met her,” a man who goes about “undoing his wife’s work, as he would find himself doing for years.”
Vaclav is an exemplar of the harshness of the Czech immigrant farmers in this book, best demonstrated by the following passage, which propels the story through the lives of Vaclav and his four sons:
His two good horses he saves for racing … [T]hey don’t work the fields … They don’t pull the plow. That work Vaclav leaves to his four sons, and when Guillermo Villaseñor drives his two Spanish-bred stallions and three olive-skinned daughters up the farm-to-market road from town … the girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands; what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and peeling and snaked with raised veins near their temples.
Villaseñor’s scheme is to offer Vaclav a load of money or the equivalent in acreage for the hands of his eldest sons, and when Vaclav refuses, Villaseñor bets that his youngest daughter can beat Karel in a horserace. Vaclav cannot refuse and the race ends predictably, though it splits the brothers in a way more permanent and treacherous than the reader expects.
Forgiveness has a few weaknesses beyond Villaseñor’s predictable malevolence: it jumps chronologically, and while Machart does so carefully so that time is never in question, it is a technique that tends to suck the tension from the work and in the middle of the book the plot goes idle when not flashing back to the tight, energetic past.
Despite these weaknesses, Machart’s abilities are not to be underestimated. It’s unusual for a novel with a voice as brawny and staid as this to set out with such potentially sentimental subject matter (essentially, sons wanting for mothers), yet Machart keeps the book from dipping into the saccharine. In one of the book’s most telling scenes, Machart describes a moment of reflection, in which Karel has come to see his brothers many years after the horserace, and the four brothers stand together, as if mimicking a picture that had been taken after their father’s funeral:
For now, the four brothers stood there, shoulder to shoulder, as they had on that cold day so many years ago after putting their father in the waterlogged ground, as they had when the photographer … fetched his fancy equipment from his carriage and urged them to line up, oldest to youngest, to stand closer — a little bit closer … that’s some fine fellows … and straighten up now, boys … What’s with the heads leaned so? … You missing your pillows already this morning or … Oh, heavens, of course.
While this is territory not too far off the beaten path, Bruce Machart has proven with The Wake of Forgiveness that there is still room on old frontiers, and plenty of fresh paths to take through them.