The Wake of Forgiveness
by Bruce Machart
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
4 Out of 5 StarsThis was an impulse buy at Barnes and Noble. I ignored the book at first in favor of looking at the books around it, but I caught the words “Tim O’Brien” during a cursory glance at a book blurb on the cover. One of my rules in life is to pick up anything with Tim O’Brien’s name on it and buy it immediately, no questions asked. To date, this rule has served me well and The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is no exception.
Set in Texas at the dawn of the 20th century, the novel focuses on the Skala family, which consists of an immigrant father and his four motherless sons. Vaclav’s wife, Klara, dies while giving birth to their fourth son, Karel, and the book focuses on the physical and emotional marks these men carry as a result of her death. The shadow of Klara haunts every page. In a cruel and unforgiving landscape, Klara would have served as the buffer between the physical and emotional demands of pioneer life, between the immigrant and his new homeland, between father and son, and between the sons themselves. Without her, these men throw themselves against each other, against the landscape, and against life itself with a brutal tenacity that can only be born of intense pain and loss.
After the loss of his wife, Vaclav Skala, an ascetic man by nature, becomes even harder and more unforgiving in his dealings with the world. To spare his fine racing horses the detrimental effects of fieldwork, he instead hitches his four sons to the plow. Their time in the harness has left the boys with a peculiar deformity: they all have twisted necks that symbolize their skewed view of the world inflicted upon them by their father. Of all the boys, none are as warped as Karel. Having never known his mother and carrying the burden of guilt for her death, Karel is nonetheless Vaclav’s pride as Karel is a gifted horseback rider whose skills have won his father many a high-stakes gamble. As the novel goes on, the narrative moves back and forth between the story of Karel as a young boy and Karel as a grown man, now alienated from his brothers. The circumstances leading to the severing of the connection with his siblings are revealed as the book goes on and heighten the suspense as the novel moves toward its satisfying resolution.
Machart has created a tragedy that is epic in scope and is often reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s best work (in particular, All the Pretty Horses comes to mind). The language is poetic and so frequently captures the heart of the moment or the quality of the landscape with such a perfect turn of phrase that I often went back and re-read certain lines just to savor them. Another point in Machart’s favor is that his characters are complex and never watered-down; these are hard, often cruel men, but that doesn’t mean they are completely devoid of kindness, poeticism, or intelligence. They are victims of a lifestyle and a landscape that naturally cripples the finest points of humanity to ensure survival in a merciless environment. That any of the characters retain even a shred of their capacity for forgiveness is the ultimate triumph.