Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bruce Machart blazes onto the scene

It's always thrilling to find a first-time novelist who leaps out of the starting gate, hooves pounding and mane flying.  When you're a reviewer and you receive an advance copy of that book months before its publication date, you walk around with a smug expression, a know-it-all smile trembling at the corners of your mouth.  You can't wait for publication date to draw near so you can start telling others to go out and buy this great new book.

Ladies and gentlemen, I've been keeping this one close to my chest for nearly two months, but now I can finally share the joy.  Bruce Machart's debut novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, has arrived at your local bookstore and I urge you--if you are the least bit interested in quality literary fiction--to trot on down to your local independent book dealer (a big-box chain bookstore, if you must; or, if you insist, an on-line dealer) and get a copy.

Need more convincing?  You can read my review of the novel at The Barnes and Noble Review, which begins:

The Wake of Forgiveness, the rich, evocative debut novel by Bruce Machart, doesn't amble gently into a prolonged introduction of place and characters, but begins bang-on in the middle of a peak scene: a messy, fatal childbirth in the winter of 1895:
The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she'd finally broken her water.
But, Machart continues, the birth was not an easy one: "When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it."

Likewise, this novel feels as if it was torn by a bare-handed surgeon from Machart's fecund imagination. Story and style writhe intertwined in a string of densely-packed sentences, the narrative itself taking on a bloody, clotted life of its own. Just a few paragraphs in and readers will find it hard to tamp down the urge to compare The Wake of Forgiveness to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy—two "go-to" authors lazy reviewers pull out of their shirt pocket when they want to telegraph blurb-ready assessments. Machart is one of the few contemporary writers worthy of that comparison, however. His labyrinthine sentences can run-on with the best of them.

But while The Wake of Forgiveness may unspool like another chapter from Faulkner's Snopes trilogy, and certainly has plenty of brutal McCarthian machismo pumping through its veins, Machart stakes his own territory in this engrossing novel which spans nearly thirty years in the troubled life of one south Texas family.

In a Publishers Weekly profile, Machart listed his favorite authors as Andre Dubus, Tim O'Brien, Wallace Stegner, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.  You can tell a lot about a man by the company of books he keeps.

That precision of language and care of craft on display in the stories of Dubus, et al, are everywhere in Machart's first book.  He's a thoughtful writer, rarely given to excess (even though, on the surface, his sentences appear to be lush and filigreed with an abundance of words).

In an interview which accompanied the press materials I received with the advance reading copy The Wake of Forgiveness, Machart further elaborates on the theme I found so compelling:
I think I've come to understand--not fully, of course, but to a degree I hadn't before--how "motherless" children manage to live and mature and even flourish without somehow self-destructing along the way.  I was such a momma's boy as a kid, and I tend to write about characters who face situations that I can't imagine living through myself.  For me, even this question of the bond between sons and mothers can be chalked up to the importance of place.  Our mothers are not only the first people we know, but they are also the first "place" in which we live.  I was interested in exploring the emotional stakes for a boy becoming a man without ever having known his mother.  What I discovered is that even this emptiness is survivable, in part because the mother is always, to some extent, "in" the child, just as surely as the child originates in the mother.
First of all, I respect any man who can publicly admit he was a "momma's boy."  But I was also struck by what he said about characters facing situations he couldn't imagine experiencing himself.  This, of course, is the union card of writers.  When we're on top of our game, we're tour guides in foreign landscapes.

I was happy to discover recently that Machart is not a one-note wonder, that he more than lives up to that "thrilling promise" I mention in my review.  By complete coincidence, when I was shopping in the local Goodwill thrift store*, I came across a 20-volume set of Glimmer Train Stories** and in those back issues, I found a story written by Machart called "The Only Good Thing I've Heard."  The short story, which was published in the Fall 1998 issue, continues that theme of children and mothers by opening with this attention-getting sentence:  The baby had died inside her, and Tammy hadn't been out of bed in five days--not since the doctor induced labor that Saturday.  Tammy's husband, Raymond, is the central character of the story and, as a nurse in a hospital's burn unit, he's a good illustration of what Machart's talking about when he advises "write what you don't know."

To the best of my knowledge, Machart has never been a nurse, but--just as he does with the hard-bitten men in The Wake of Forgiveness--he slips seamlessly under Raymond's skin.  You get a very clear sense of what it's like to work in a burn unit, the professional detachment needed when helping doctors debride burned skin, as well as the heart-cracking compassion you inevitably feel for the patients in agony.  Take a look at these two paragraphs:
          Mrs. Lane's bottom lip was burned mostly away, and Raymond tried not to imagine it melting, dripping down onto her chin.  He was surprised she could still talk, but she spoke without squinting or slurring her words--without even the slightest sign of pain.  The day before, while Dr. Dutch and Nurse Taylor peeled the loose, burned skin from the old woman's chin with tweezers and scissors, scouring the raw flesh clean with a pad that looked like the one Tammy used on her baking dishes, Raymond had held the woman around the waist, keeping her bent above the whirlpool, whispering in her ear that it was almost over, as she screamed for them to stop.
          Hers had been the first debridement therapy of the day, and it was too much for him--the sight of bloody, singed flesh--and afterward he'd walked inconspicuously to the rest room and vomited.
Unfortunately, when I read "The Only Good Thing I've Heard," I happened to be eating breakfast: crisp bacon and slightly-runny eggs--not the kind of tactile reading experience you need first thing in the morning.  But when I was through, I was happy to have read the story, graphic scenes and all.  The patients in the burn unit--especially the young ones--churn Raymond's emotions as he simultaneously deals with his wife's miscarriage.  I guarantee you will not leave this story unshaken.

Machart will be releasing a collection of short stories, Men in the Making, on the heels of The Wake of Forgiveness sometime next year.  If this Glimmer Train story is any indication, that collection will further cement Machart's career--a future in writing which is no longer just a happy secret kept by us reviewers.

*It may not put coin in writers' pockets, but it is a fun place for bookhounds to explore and get treasures on the cheap.
**I'd regretfully let my subscription lapse during what my wife and I refer to as The Poverty Years, so it was cool to find these missing issues to add to my collection.

Author photo by Tessa Goth

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