Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Razors in the Bloodstream: Men in the Making by Bruce Machart


I was halfway through Bruce Machart's debut collection of short stories, Men in the Making, when I rushed over to Facebook and posted this somewhat breathless message: "I can only read one story per day because they are like miniature razor blades bumping through my bloodstream.  This is fiction that excoriates and scrubs the reader from the inside out."  That sort of hyperbole is pretty typical of me and sometimes I'll later "reflect and regret" when I look back at what I've written.

Not in this case.  Machart's ten stories, set mostly in Texas, are brutally good.  It's the kind of fiction you read with equal parts pleasure and pain.  It's the kind of pain that's good for you--the dental yank of the festered tooth, the extraction of the splinter, the snap-crunch back into place of the dislocated shoulder.  At times, the stories can be hard to read, but when we've made it through to the end, we're rewarded with that sweet succor of catharsis.

But yes, it can be emotionally wrenching to reach those epiphanies.  Machart, who also wrote the excellent novel The Wake of Forgiveness, doesn't shy away from the awful.  He forces you to take your eyes off the road ahead and stare at all the gory realities of the wreck on the shoulder of the highway.  In "The Only Good Thing I've Heard," for instance, we spend some time with Raymond, a nurse in a burn unit, as he administers debridement treatments to the patients.  There are scenes in there guaranteed to make you squirm.  But you cannot look away.

Or consider this opening paragraph of "Monuments":
When I was ten, after my mother left Dad and me and flew off to Europe, Kevin, the five-year-old next door, got run down in front of our house. He was chasing a cat, and after his body hit the pavement and slid into the grass near the Houston Lighting and Power substation across the road, neighbors say a bearded man in overalls stumbled down from the truck, put a hand on the sideview mirror to keep his balance, and took a leak right there in the street, beer cans falling from the cab to his feet. Later, we heard that Kevin's aorta had burst, that he probably hadn't felt the asphalt peeling his skin or the dark green cool of the grass where he'd come to a crumpled stop.
Every word in that paragraph is carefully orchestrated and impeccably placed, from the drunk's hand reaching out to the sideview mirror for balance to the "dark green cool of the grass" to the "crumpled stop."  That kind of hard work on the part of the writer is all but invisible to the reader caught up in what's happening on the page.  The details in that paragraph are so vivid and so shocking you forget it started with the seemingly-casual comment that the narrator comes from a broken home.  But that absentee mother and the narrator's longing for love are central to the story.  Kevin with his peeled skin is important, too, but he's the gory window dressing that pulls you inside the door.

Another standout story is "Because He Can't Not Remember"--the tension starting in the double negative of the title.  It's about a couple--new parents--in the last five minutes of their life together in a Walmart parking lot on "another Houston night so hot and humid you could hang teabags from tree branches to steep." In a few moments, their lives will intersect with the troubled Ramirez twins in their blue LeMans cruising the parking lot and they will all be changed forever.  After reading this, I sat in my chair, unable to move for several minutes, reamed through and through by the unbearable heaviness and beauty of the writing.

Machart also does an excellent job of describing the worlds in which his characters live; the details of the stories take us to places most of us have never been--a lumber mill, for instance, with this explanation of a debarker from "The Last One Left in Arkansas":
Imagine a porcupine turned inside out, a big mother with three-foot-long steel quills. That’s what a debarking drum is like. An enormous pipe, fifteen feet in diameter and lined inside with hundreds of these quills. Load it with a dozen or so twenty-foot-tall, forty-year-old Arkansas pine trunks, turn that sucker on, get it rolling good, and thirty seconds later you’ve got naked trees, fresh and clean as an Eden stream. Step back, blow the bark and sap out the discharge vents, smell that rich, sappy-sweet smell, and keep on keepin’ on.
After reading Machart's story, I know enough to stay away from one of these machines and not let my curiosity lead me inside to check out those quills at a time when no one else knows I'm in there and the foreman comes along to throw the switch. That happens here in "The Last One Left in Arkansas" and it's not pretty.

There's not a single story in this collection that doesn't work its ass off to earn genuine sympathy for its characters.  These men defy the stereotype of blunt, hard-shelled machismo; Machart makes them far more complex than that.  Oh sure, there's some swagger, but we recognize it for the thin shield it is; like this paragraph from the opening story, the aptly-named "Where You Begin":
You know Jimmy, all right. Here’s a guy with--as he’ll tell you--a truck and some luck and on good nights a fuck. A guy just far enough out of his mind to own the Exxon shipping and receiving record for blindfolded forklift driving--all hundred and five feet of the loading dock and down the ramp without ever putting on the brakes. Yup, Jimmy’s got more bowling shirts than sense, but you’ve been knowing him a long time, and when tit turns to trouble he ain’t ever late in that truck. He’s good people, Jimmy, never mind all his ribbing.

For every Jimmy, we get men like the members of the pipe fitter's union in "Among the Living Amidst the Trees" who shave their heads in sympathy for a co-worker with cancer:
These are rough-hewn and heavy men, men with calluses thick as rawhide, men who aren't afraid to keep something tender beneath their rib cages, and to expose it to the elements when occasion calls for it, no matter how it hurts.

In Men in the Making, Machart is trying to get all the way to that inner core of hurt, past the leather epidermis of stoicism and brute force.  What he finds, in fact, is that men are some of the most tender creatures around--whether they know it or not.  The very last line of the last story in the book neatly sums it up: "to be a man, a whole man, is to remain forever in need."  Though women aren't the main characters in these stories, neither are they marginalized. We are all travelers on the same journey, Machart says, with the same vulnerabilities and fear.  Every reader has something to gain from the beautiful scouring debridement of Machart's fiction.

2 comments:

  1. fantastic review - sounds like a powerful collection

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  2. Very amazing one surely. Thanks for this interesting article.


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