The Wake of Forgiveness

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Bruce Machart’s debut novel channels Cormac McCarthy, while narrating a Southern gothic tale centered around women.

Bruce Machart’s brilliant debut novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is its tight, tight narrative control. Machart maintains this control while managing difficult prose through multiple time frames, all while aspiring to the myth-making sensibility of the southern gothic.

Despite its genre predilections, what struck me most is that The Wake of Forgiveness is about women. Granted, it’s about women as perceived by the men of Lavaca County, Texas, a piece of ranchland settled by Czech farmers and fictionalized to enhance the grotesque in a fashion that might please Cormac McCarthy or Carson McCullers. The novel explicitly tracks the six women with whom its protagonist, Karel, has direct relationships—three of them are his lovers; the other three are his mothers. But it also considers the women of Lavaca County in the abstract, as if its real ambition were to somehow break through the limitations of its narrative viewpoint and grasp what it is to be those women.

The nuts and bolts: The Wake of Forgiveness tells the story of Karel Skala, the youngest of Vaclav Skala’s four sons. The book opens with Karel’s birth, a depth-of-night affair that begins with his mother, Klara’s, bleeding, and ends with him nursing on her corpse. This all takes place in 1895, one of the book’s three time periods. The other two periods, 1910 and 1924, document the destruction of the Skala family and the birth of Karel’s own son, respectively. The 1895 narrative is the frame: Its very limited action—Karel’s movement from dead mother’s breast to his (live) nursemaid’s, as mediated by the midwife, also a mother figure—is told in brief sections that bookend the novel.

The 1910 section begins with Karel’s dirty win of a neighbor’s land in a horse race. Karel’s father has redirected the affection he once felt for his wife into a brutal obsession with horseracing. Enter Villasenor, a wealthy Mexican aficionado of racehorses and father of three daughters, who offers to race one of the daughters, Graciela, against Karel for the right to marry all three of them to Vaclav’s eldest sons. The lead-up to the race is highly sexualized: Graciela makes midnight visits to the Skala stables; Karel, alone among his brothers, wakes to find her, night after night. His ensuing fantasy, the fantasy of a fifteen-year-old farm boy for a rich, thick-braided, sexy, horse-riding, foreign girl, lies at the heart of the book.

The 1924 narrative introduces two more important women: Karel’s wife, Sophie, and his mistress, Elizka. Though the narrative initially suggests that it is occasioned by Sophie’s labor, and Karel’s sex with Elizka during, its actual plot is driven by twin fifteen-year-old brothers—yes, the same age as Karel in the middle narrative—whom Karel hires to watch his farm and bootlegging business while he stays in Praha with his wife and newborn (and mistress). The twins, it turns out, are the sons of Hildi, Karel’s nursemaid, which gives them a claim to being Karel’s brothers—a claim, they’re eager to point out, that they’re willing to make whereas Karel’s actual brothers are not. The twins get into trouble with the rival bootlegging business run by Karel’s brothers on behalf of Villasenor. What happens as a result is a symbolic outcome for Hildi, and for Karel’s claims of a separate dynasty; in this way, the twins serve as the novel’s metaphoric and thematic center.

Machart creates the novel’s sense of mythic grandiosity by repeating images. He repeatedly describes Vaclav grinding tobacco between his back teeth and Karel grinding out cigarettes with the toe of his boot. He introduces more than one scene with the description of a bird in flight. But he does this work on a far grander level in the novel’s sex scenes. Karel’s sex with Elizka takes, essentially, the same form as with Graciela—same location, same position—making the scene with Graciela, when it arrives, read like something we’ve always known. Machart’s language grows more spare here, bringing the action into sharper focus and reinforcing the scene’s otherness, until it seems larger than life. Machart’s success with this scene, and it is breathtakingly successful, is ultimately the success of the novel as a whole, as it depends on the careful patterning of everything else in the narrative.

There are many other things to admire in The Wake of Forgiveness, not least its focus on the relationships between fathers and their offspring, between siblings, between neighbors. All of are well rendered, all of them are compelling. But the scene with Graciela truly stands out, and could single-handedly serve as the reason to read this excellent debut.

Poets & Writers counted Jacob Paul's debut novel, Sarah/Sara, as one of the season's five best first fictions in their July/August issue. Originally a New Yorker, Paul now lives, writes, cycles, and skis in Salt Lake City, Utah, when he is not teaching literature or creative writing at the University of Utah. Excerpts from his second novel, A Song of Ilan, have won the Utah Writers’ Contest in 2008 and the Richard Scowcroft Prize in 2007. There's more about him and his writing on his website: More from this author →