Wednesday, October 20, 2010: Maximum Shelf: The Wake of Forgiveness

HMH: The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

HMH: Nemesis by Philip Roth

HMH: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

HMH: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: The Wake of Forgiveness

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present The Wake of Forgiveness, a debut novel by Bruce Machart, which goes on sale on October 21. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has helped support the issue.


HMH: The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

Books & Authors

Bruce Machart: The Search for Home

A native Texan, Bruce Machart was born and raised in the Houston area. After high school, he worked his way through eight years of undergraduate study before leaving for the Midwest and graduate work in Columbus, Ohio. He later spent three years in the Boston area, where he taught literature and writing at Berklee College of Music, Boston University and Grub Street Writers. In 2003, he returned to Houston, where he joined the faculty of Lone Star College. He is currently at work, we are happy to hear, on a second novel.


How did you research the book? Were there family stories?

Very little of what appears in the novel actually came from family stories, although my paternal grandfather was from Lavaca County and made his first communion at St. Mary's in Praha. My grandparents met at a dance in Wied. But when I was 13 or 14, my father did tell me a story about some boys whose father, out of meanness or desperation, used them as plow horses. It seemed so unbelievable that I wondered if I could pull it off. It seemed so unreal. That was really the only family story that found its way into the book.

When I finished the novel, I mentioned to my father that he had told me this story, and he said, "That was your Aunt Dorothy's first husband--he was one of the boys."

And late in the novel when Vaclav is delirious and says nobody's doing anything until he gets his bale of cotton--that came from my grandfather. He always demanded a bale of cotton for his birthday. But it wasn't out of meanness, but as a challenge to his kids.

As for the research, I love librarians. Their vocation is to help other people get what they need. I met a wonderful librarian who helped me locate all the Lavaca County newspapers for the time period I needed.

Your evocation of the land and the weather is so perfect. Did you grow up on a farm or in the country?

I didn't. I'm a first-generation city boy (Houston). My father grew up on a cattle and cotton farm in Wharton County, which is near Lavaca County. Most of his family stayed there, and I have 36 cousins in the area. That country landscape was always of interest to me. It's not exactly homesickness, but I always felt like an outsider at family gatherings. We really only went to "the country" four or five times a year. It felt lonely, and it was the kind of loneliness that made me curious--out of place in the landscape that is supposed to be your roots as a family. I never felt anything other than out of place there, and that was arresting to me.

So you're a Texan, but you have no accent.

There is less of an accent in southeast Texas, and the language is distinguished more by idiom than by accent. When I wrote the dialogue, I didn't want to try to capture the accent, so I concentrated on idiom and rhythm.

And I do have an accent, depending on whom I am talking to. I have a chameleon voice.

Your descriptions of horseback riding are spectacular. Do you ride?

I rode a little growing up. I love to ride, but don't often get the chance. I was around horses a little in high school--my girlfriend rode. I'm not in any danger of falling out of the saddle, but I'm not an accomplished rider.

Maybe the experience sticks with you if you don't do it a lot. It's hard to find a place to really run on a horse, so when it's not such a workaday thing, it is special. And I try to write about what I don't know. Writing's a lot of work, and I never want to work that hard only to get someplace I've already been.

Were moonlight horse races common?

I would daresay not. And the racing in my novel is not. People were pretty conservative with their money and their land. I did read one account about a Lavaca race, but it was considered a crime if there was gambling involved, so any racing would have been done at night outside of town. But you can be sure that men went to them when they occurred.

In the book you say that Czech farmers have run off all the red-haired settlers--who were they, and how did that happen?

I got a map from the University of Texas archives, and if you look at the map--it was from the 1890s--you see mostly Anglo names. Irish and English and Scots-Irish. And at about the time the story starts, in 1895, there was an incredible influx of Moravian and Bohemian and German settlers into the region.

I think pushing out the Anglo settlers was, in reality, more a matter of circumstance and tenacity, and maybe a desire on the part of the early settlers by then to move to bigger cities and cooler climates.

Was it common to use people for plowing, or was Vaclav unusual? He didn't seem to be unusual for that era in his harshness.

No, but it did happen once. Some early readers were appalled and disgusted by that, calling it "child abuse." But I don't think someone raised in the country, even as late as the 1950s, would think that. Extremely harsh, yes, but not abuse.

My initial challenge as a writer was to make that believable. But I have so much empathy for Vaclav in his situation. He's prone to cruelty, but he's also heartbroken. And he's human. And it was a tough life, and boys were a boon to a farmer. They were used without a thought as to the rightness or wrongness of it. It's just what they did. There were expectations on everyone for hard work, but for boys it was an inflexible expectation.

Karel is unexpectedly tender with his daughters. That surprised me.

For me it was a natural function of his character, and I didn't question it at first. But I have to be careful so that I don't make characters better or worse than they really are. It struck me in revision that Karel seemed to be a better dad than I might have expected. But the more I thought about it, I thought my instincts were right. He's a man so in need of feminine connection that he's sweet with his daughters and his wife, against all expectation. Even when he strays, his sins stem from a very real desire to fill the void from the loss of his mother.

He's been searching and searching, and every memory he has of his mother is a fabrication, even if he can't pull it to the fore. Of course, in the womb he did physically did touch her. There is something there. But that's so precarious-- to need something so acutely, and to think it might be in you, but you can't access it.

He thinks he might have heard his mother's voice singing to him when he was as yet unborn--as she went about her chores and such--and while he can't recall it, he's been carrying the memory of it around inside him all his life.

Did the birth of his son have anything to do with his shift toward his brothers?

I think it's so important. Perhaps having a son doesn't carry the all-important weight that it once did, but having his line carried forth is so important to Karel. He's living in the past--the 1910 race and loss and rejection is still very much where he is, both emotionally and psychologically. But the son is the future. If his relationship with his son can be different, the implications fan out from there.



HMH: The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagan

Adrienne Brodeur: Working with Bruce Machart

Adrienne Brodeur has been a consulting editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt since 2005. She acquires fiction and memoir, and her list of authors includes Dean Bakopoulos, Anita Desai, Bruce Machart, Martha McPhee, Bharati Mukherjee and Peter Rock. She founded the fiction magazine Zoetrope: All-Story with filmmaker Francis Coppola and served as its editor from 1995 to 2002, during which time the magazine won the prestigious National Magazine Award for Best Fiction. She judged the National Book Award in 2002. Her novel, Man Camp, was published by Random House in 2005.


Why and how did you pick The Wake of Forgiveness to publish?

I had gotten to know Bruce's work years earlier in 2001, when I published a tremendous story of his in Zoetrope: All-Story, the fiction magazine I founded with Francis Coppola. Cut to five years later. I had just started working for Harcourt and I saw "Bruce Machart" on a manuscript box--yes, it was that recently that manuscripts arrived in boxes and not electronically. The box had a nice heft and I was excited to read his work again. I breezed past the letter from his agent, which I swear didn't mention that the novel was a partial. Anyway, I became totally absorbed as I read--I didn't want to eat, didn't want to talk to my husband, didn't want to do anything but keep reading. Then I got to page 97 and the novel abruptly stopped. I was devastated! Tucked neatly behind it was a collection of short stories entitled Men in the Making, which is also brilliant and we will publish next year. I called the agent, and she confirmed there were only 97 pages. Even so, I knew that I wanted to buy it. Initially, there were some reservations internally about buying an unfinished novel by an unknown author, but when the finished manuscript arrived several years later, everyone recognized what a marvel it was.

What's it like to work with Bruce?

He's a dream, a perfectionist. Right away when you read his work--as an editor or as a "regular" reader, for that matter--you relax into the experience, knowing that you are in the hands of an extremely talented writer who knows exactly where he's going to take you.

Any challenges in editing the novel?

Well... The Wake of Forgiveness is a challenging and complicated novel on many levels. Consider the tenses alone, and how Bruce navigates time. My red pencil was often poised above the page, but 99% of the time, Bruce got it right. I did make suggestions along the way, of course, but mostly on a story level. I did very little in the way of line editing. I didn't mess with his prose. I have since heard the stray complaint or two that Bruce's sentences can be long and complicated, but when you consider all that they convey and how beautifully they do it, I challenge anyone to improve upon them.

Bruce would often threaten to deliver a section to me in a "rough state," but the fact is, he never did. How I would know that something was amiss was that he'd miss a deadline. Later, I would learn that he'd taken a wrong turn and had to toss 116 pages, but I was rarely part of that process. What he sent me was always very polished, which is, in the end, what every editor wants.



Book Brahmin: Bruce Machart

Bruce Machart, author of The Wake of Forgiveness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 21, 2010), is a graduate of the MFA program at Ohio State University. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Story, One Story, Five Points and Glimmer Train, and his collection of stories, Men in the Making, will be published by HMH in 2011.

To view the powerful and evocative book trailer for The Wake of Forgiveness, click here.

On your nightstand now:

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy; Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye; Jay Parini's Faulkner biography, One Matchless Time; and The Engineer of Human Souls by the fantastic Czech writer Josef Skvorecky.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows. I can't wait to read this with my son for the first time. But I have to wait until he's old enough to handle seeing his old man come undone. It still slays me.

Your top five authors:

Right this minute? Richard Yates, Graham Greene, Faulkner, Tolstoy and Miss Eudora Welty.

Book you've faked reading:

The Bible, back in my CCE days during middle school. I've since made my literary Act of Contrition.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Spartina by John Casey. Especially for aspiring writers. Just about everything one needs to know about the inextricable nature of character and place can be learned from Mr. Casey's tour de force.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Kent Haruf's Plainsong. Turns out that what's inside the book is even more beautiful than the arresting landscape on the outside.

Book that changed your life:

All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner. I defy you to read that scene in which the horse falls through the wood-plank bridge without losing some part of yourself and discovering another along the way.

Favorite line from a book:         

"Where you going to find enough beer to put out on this here table?"--from Eudora Welty's story "Powerhouse." Powerhouse could pull this off, but when you say this to waitresses these days, they give you a certain look.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. The first reading came as close to epiphany as I may ever come.



Book Review

Mandahla: The Wake of Forgiveness

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $26.00 Hardcover, 9780151014439, October 2010)

The soil is black and rich, the sun unrelenting, the wind a constant in the stark landscape that Bruce Machart limns so superbly in The Wake of Forgiveness, his debut novel set in early 20th-century Lavaca County in southeast Texas, a land where a man needs good seed, a strong back, stubbornness and a wife who lives long enough to give him sons. A land where thick stands of mesquite trees have "arthritic branches and thorns long enough to skewer a foot in the way only careless barefoot boys and Jesus might fully appreciate." The sun bakes the earth to a tough polish, the scents of dry pine and chimney smoke fill the air, and the relentless wind picks up out of the west, "as if bent on keeping the sun on the morning horizon." This is harsh country and a harsh life, rendered in lush prose. 

The novel opens with an epigraph from Lamentations: "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth...." Vaclav Skala takes these words literally after his pregnant wife dies. When he wakes in wet bed linens to find her clutching rosary beads and moaning, he kisses her tenderly on her forehead, thinking her water had broken, but he soon realizes the wetness is blood, as she births their fourth son. That kiss was the last moment of softness in Vaclav's life. His newest son suckles the scant milk left, and Vaclav says, "Let him get what's left of her if he can. He's done taken the rest." While the pink glow of dawn begins and mockingbirds come to life in the pear grove, Vaclav burns the mattress feathers, staring at his hands stained with the blood of the only woman he'd ever been fond of. Townsfolk would assume that the death of Klara Skala had turned a gentle man bitter, but in truth, her death merely returned him to the hard man he'd been before. 

Fifteen years later, Vaclav Skala owns just under 600 acres, a third of it taken from his neighbor Patrick Dalton by wit and fast horses. Vaclav has only one weakness--two roan quarter horses: "His two good horses he saves for racing, for the straight makeshift furlongs of the moonlit creek bed, for the chance to take more land from his godforsaken neighbor." The roans don't work the fields; they race, they eat, they mate, they rest. For plowing, Vaclav yokes his four sons; instead of animals, he works his boys like animals. They are weathered, they strain against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, and their necks are permanently canted, two boys' one way, two boys' the other, by their years hitched to the plow. They look as if they are continually pondering an impenetrable question. 

One day in March, a carriage comes up to the field Vaclav and his boys are working, driven by Guillermo Villaseñor. He has his three daughters with him, and a proposition for Skala: Vaclav can double his acreage if he agrees to marry his three oldest boys to Villaseñor's daughters. Vaclav is unwilling until the Spanish landowner offers a wager that Vaclav accepts: a horse race between youngest son Karel and Guillermo's daughter Graciela. If Karel wins, Vaclav gets the land without the marriages; if Karel loses, the elder boys get a future without a physical yoke and Karel is left with his brutal father. 

That night Karel hears a sound in the pear grove; when he slides outside, listening with rifle aimed, he wonders "if a man can set himself afire with only the friction of his own fears." He's surprised to see Graciela and her horse, and is captivated by "her eyes so deep and full of their dark allure that Karel imagines she could pull him out of his boots and into the saddle with nothing more than a look." He asks her name, and she whispers: "Ask me Saturday, and I'll tell you it's Skala." 

Before the race commences, Karel remembers a contest four years back, when he raced Dalton's boy for acreage. As Karel stilled in the saddle, his father walked up and silently held a nine-inch knife to the nose of his horse, Whiskey, letting the roan get a good, strong smell of its steel. A threat and a goad for both horse and 11-year-old rider with whip in hand. "The truth, Karel knew, though he could not have yet put it into words, was that the horse wanted the whip, wanted it the same way Karel wanted his pop's strap, the stinging and unambiguous urgency of its attention, and, for Karel, the closest he got to his father's touch." 

Now, at the beginning of the race, Graciela's face has a solemn beauty that reminds him of a memory he can't possibly have of his mother sitting on a horse at night, himself floating inside her. For the first time, he dreads swinging into the saddle. Vaclav again comes up to the horse, holds the knife, whispers and nicks its nose, along with a threat and a promise to Karel: if he loses he'll never ride the horse again; if he wins, he can have the girl. And so they race. "Two motherless children get up in their stirrups to do their fathers' bidding." 

Graciela wins, and Karel knows his brothers were wishing failure upon him, as were many of the townsmen and ranchers and farmers, securing their jugs of corn whiskey with twine and floating them in the cold river "as if fishing for the county drunks." He accuses his brothers, and a fight starts--the three older boys against Karel and Vaclav, with the men cheering on a family's dissolution with "the bloodlust of brothers, the vengeful rage of the father, all of it born out and somehow flawless in its wickedness, like some depraved reenactment of Genesis staged solely for the amusement of reprobates." 

After the fight, bleeding and half-blind, Karel rides out in a downpour; in the darkness, somewhere, is a girl astride her black horse in the rain. He sets out to find her. 

Fourteen years later, Vaclav is dead and Karel has the farm and a lucrative sideline selling beer from the Spoetzl Brewery, since to be a Czech farmer in south Texas is to always be thirsty. He has a wife, Sophie, and two daughters. Sophie is pregnant, about to deliver, but is determined to go to Praha for evening mass at St. Mary's and the dance at the Jolly Club. The wind is worrying the twisted branches of a mesquite tree, and Karel, sipping coffee, looks out over his herd of cattle, leaning to the right at his waist in order to set the world level in his sights. Well over a decade has passed since Vaclav's funeral, his brothers there with their rich and lovely Spanish wives. He doesn't spend too much time thinking about them--there are too many things to do, but Karel likes most of his chores, and if the world were made only of such work, he wouldn't mind so much being without a son, and "wouldn't have to keep Sophie on her back every night in March so that, come next December, after the bulk of the year's work was done, she might finally get it right and deliver a boy."

Sophie's water breaks at the kneeling rail at St. Mary's, and Karel hears it in her voice. "His hearing, after these five years of marriage, was attuned to her voice in the way common only to husbands who adore their wives and those who lie to them with regularity. To Karel's mind, he practiced the latter because of the former, because Sophie was a good woman... she endured the indiscretions the way a good horse will endure shoeing and hard harness work, blinded to everything but the promise of brushstrokes and oats, of kindness and comfort. With eyes affixed only to a future worth forsaking the present for." 

At the Jolly Club, while his wife is in labor, he meets the Knedlik twins, Raymond and Joe, 14 years old, whose widowed father has just died in a house fire. Karel hires them to caretake his farm while he stays in town with his family, setting in motion a tragedy born of greed and stupidity. When Karel drives back to the farm, the boys are gone, and "there was a reckoning of trouble to be found inside the barn." He sets out to find them, which leads, inevitably, to one of his brothers.

When Karel would later tell the story of his son's birth, he'd stretch the truth to make it more amazing, something he began to do to instill the wonderful in the commonplace, especially when he tells stories to his children. He has a tenderness for his daughters and his wife that are surprising, given his upbringing of "quiet exclusion," where he heard over and over that he'd killed his mother and his father despised him for it. He was wounded deeply, but still, somehow, is now thoughtful enough to touch Sophie with the backs of his fingers so as not to rough her skin with his leathery hands. He's sweet on his little daughters. Perhaps the dreamlike memory he carries of his mother's voice singing to him, unborn, as she went about her chores, has tempered his father's legacy. Perhaps his deep need for soft touch--when a midwife touches his arm after he loses the race, he wishes his sleeves were rolled up--has gentled him. 

Machart's writing has a delicacy that throws the story's cruelty into sharp relief. Mesquite and pecan trees cast erratic shapes against bruised skies, while "Overhead, a thick quiltwork of clouds gathers and bunches until, pulled forth by the wind, it flattens out as if by feminine hands pressed into its airy batting to smooth it over a mattress." A stray cloud carries a fringe of color so it looks like it had made off with some unsuspecting sunset; another day, "The sun works its way in and out of the clouds." Female gracefulness tempers desolation. "A sliver of moon lashes behind the low scrim of cloud with all the coy promise of a woman's pale skin showing itself beneath the sheer guise of worn stockings." He captures the thrill and immediacy of horse riding as Karel discovers that all he needs to escape the loud landscape of his father is the darkened mysterious landscape of the night and a horse run hard: "Nothing filled more with wonder, nothing so able to convince you that you are flesh and blood and alive in the world that offers so few joys other than this running." 

Karel has lost the comfort of brothers, the bitter allegiance with his father, the lovely Graciela and the nights of riding a fine horse. But now, with his family, as he imagines a life with his son, he finds a way to make a hard peace with the past, and he comes to an austere deliverance. The other verse from the novel's epigraph is Jeremiah 8:20: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." But for Karel, the harvest of his life is a saving grace. 

Bruce Machart has written a marvel of a book, stunning and riveting. His depictions of a hard land and a hard life, softened by women and the distractions of beer, church and polka music, evoke a recent past so clearly one can hear the click of dominoes and taste a cold pilsner. His exploration of how mother-loss can shatter lives is heartbreaking. His rich prose shimmers and shocks, as the tragedy sown in the wake of the plow turns into the wake of redemption.--Marilyn Dahl



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