Driving the Drive We Drive Five Times a Week

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Bruce Machart’s Men in the Making tells sad, poignant stories in impeccable prose.

The stories in Bruce Machart’s debut collection, Men in the Making, fit together with the logic of a good mix tape. Granted, it’s the mix tape you’d give your buddy who a) still has a cassette player in his truck, and b) after a long night of drinking plans to drive across the country to confront an ex-lover. While the stories share a focus on men in distress in contemporary Texas and neighbors-it-thinks-lesser—Oklahoma and Arkansas, for example—their prose styles vary dramatically, especially in cadence.

The first story, “Where You Begin,” starts the collection with the attention-catching fervor of a symphony’s allegro. Its narrator dictates in an often breathless direct address that quickly slips into that false second person contemporary poets are so fond of. Take the second paragraph for example, which is one long semicoloned sentence:

But if you’re like I used be, when your fiancée of five months gets home from a day of slaving for that lawyer downtown, the guy who cuts her a check twice a month for the privilege of telling her what to do and watching her cleavage go red with splotches the way it does sometimes when she’s flustered; when she makes it through the door and finds you scribbling your latest on a legal pad, still in your boxers with the newspaper untouched on the porch in its plastic wrap, the classified still tucked inside without a single job listing circled; and when a few minutes later she comes half naked and frowning into the hallway as red-faced and eager for her evening shower as would be a farm wife after bleeding a hog, you know you’re history.

The first clause, at seven words, is relatively calm. The second, at seventeen, begins to pick up steam. The third, doubling again, comes in a whopping thirty-five words. Between the semicolons are three balanced clauses all in the fifteen words range. The first two use alliteration to emphasize their conclusions (latest/legal and porch/plastic); the third simply runs into the semicolon. Finally, in the sentence’s third part, we encounter another whopper, a thirty-three-word clause that leads up to three simple iambs with which the reader is finally released.

For all of its speed, brevity, and tone, the story’s structure is surprisingly elegant and sophisticated. The story is set at the end of several cycles: the narrator’s compulsive falling in love, serial writing of not quite good enough stories, and long nights driving Houston’s loop while drinking beer. Apparently the 610 is exactly long enough for one person to drink a six pack of Lone Star. (If I do have a petty annoyance with the book it’s that it feels like Machart might be on Lone Star’s payroll.) Most of the story’s action takes place on this literal loop, which is brilliant both as an organizational strategy for the narrative and as a metaphor for all the other cycles the action seeks to interrupt.

If “The Way You Begin” is in allegro, the collection’s second story, “The Last One in Arkansas,” is an adagio. Twice as long as the first story and told in short, clipped, nearly stumbling, first-person clauses, it narrates the lonely reflections of a man who lost his family when his son died while the narrator helps bury, years later, another young man.

The first two stories give the tenor of the collection’s content and a sense of the mastery Machart brings both to their stylistic composition and the collection’s overall arrangement. That arrangement allows him to build towards the collection’s two final stories, both of which feel considerably more mature, more in keeping with his novel, The Wake of Forgiveness. The language in the first of these two, “Among the Living Amidst the Trees,” particularly impressed me. There’s a remarkable control and precision in its prosody. Listen, for example, to the first sentence:

Half past quitting time on Friday, a day we began by liquefying a family of possums in the debarker, and Garrett and me are driving the drive we drive five times a week.

Its stacked alliteration, assonance, and repetition give its action a sense of inevitability, an inevitability reinforced by the conjunction that gives the introductory clauses equal weight with the independent clause to which they should be subordinate. The story is set in Jasper in the wake of James Byrd Jr.’s dragging murder. The narrator’s wife has become obsessed with the murder in a way that renders her inaccessible. The sentences in which the narrator contemplates his lost access, sentences complicated and cascading, present a tremendous capacity for deep interiority while pining for access to that very thing. This sort of move is Machart at his best:

Instead I want her to laugh, to wink at me while stepping out of her skirt, to turn off the lights and shut the bedroom door and pull me with her beneath three or four quilts so that I can have her all to myself, so I can duck my head beneath the covers before we make love and see her skin glowing there in the darkness, calling to me in some shiny new language only I can understand, lighting my way while I reach out and hold her and keep her from crying and answer her in the voice of the man I’ve somehow managed to become.

Later, when they sneak into the crime scene at night and observe the red paint circles marking the bits of Byrd Jr.’s body:

And there, by God, they are: dozens of them, some big enough to outline a trash can lid, other so small you could cover them with a coffee cup, and no pattern or order to them whatsoever. We walk up the road and Glenda bounces the light around from red circle to red circle, and the moon stays back behind the clouds, and the forest seems rightfully alive and loud. And they just go on forever. I’m thinking you could pull me apart however you pleased, and no matter how you tried you’d never end up with enough pieces to fill these rings. I’m thinking there’s a lesson in that, a lesson I might could stand to learn, something about how there’s always more to you than what you might think, but then Glenda bends down and trace a finger around one of the red circles and it’s all I can do to stand there and watch her.

The collection is worth reading for this story alone, which is not to say that the rest of it isn’t anything other than good reading. Those who’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness may find these stories a considerable shift from that novel. Indeed, many of these stories likely predate the novel, but the range and prose are truly a marvel and make the collection a must-read.

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: www.jacobgpaul.com. More from this author →