A much-hyped debut novel (cue the usual Cormac comparisons) conjures Texas’s Czechered past.
As every schoolchild used to know, Texas has 254 counties, and seemingly every one of them has been the subject of a volume of professional or amateur history. Refugio County has so much history it took two volumes to get it all in. Given this preoccupation with local lore, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of the state’s counties have also served as the settings for works of fiction. Larry McMurtry turned Archer County into his very own Yokna-patawpha, setting no fewer than seven novels there. Bexar County probably leads the pack, thanks to the Alamo. Even Terrell County, which boasts a population of less than a thousand, is the setting of a famous book: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
The latest county to meet with a literary reckoning is Lavaca, in Bruce Machart’s ambitious first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). Machart, whose forebears hail from Lavaca County and who teaches English at Houston’s Lone Star University, is receiving the red-carpet treatment: a much-sought-after starred review in Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, a glowing blurb from National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien (“What a fine, rich, absorbing book”), and a promotional video that offers stirring scenes and images from the novel (a horse race, a fistfight, a burning house, and some soulful moments between two lovers that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harlequin romance). Not to mention the inevitable comparisons to McCarthy.
Located about a hundred miles west of Houston, Lavaca County (county seat Hallettsville, population 2,494) has never drawn a lot of attention to itself; the area boasts one worthwhile tourist attraction, the Spoetzl Brewery, which makes Shiner beer. Machart’s interest lies elsewhere, in the little-known Czech phase of the county’s settlement. In the 1870’s immigrants from central Europe began to displace the original planters from the Old South, and by 1895, when Machart’s novel begins, the county had taken on a central European look and feel, with numerous Czech newspapers and social organizations. Machart’s characters constitute a Czech-list of names unusual in Texas and Western fiction: Lad Dvorak, Bohumil Novotny, Bern Chytka. No Billy Bobs, Duanes, or Sue Anns here. It turns out that there are good Czechs and bad Czechs. There are also several hot Czechs. In any event they all drink a lot of beer, eat a lot of kolaches, and dance a lot of schottisches. They also breed, foal, feud, and fight. A lot.
The tale begins with the violent birth of the protagonist, Karel Skala, and the consequent death of his mother. Maddened by grief, Karel’s father, Vaclav, lashes out at his four sons, working them relentlessly in his fields. Karel bears the brunt of his father’s passion and love, and as a result he grows estranged from his brothers. The forgiveness mentioned in the title comes slowly, and over the course of the book Karel struggles to reenter the circle of family life. Throughout, Machart strives for an operatic intensity that some readers will surely like.
But I have my doubts. For one thing, the story line keeps jumping around. The novel is broken into the following segments: February 1895, March 1910, December 1924, March 1910, May 1898, December 1924, March 1910, December 1924, and February 1895. Faulkner made a living fooling around with chronology, but Machart ain’t him. One keeps pulling up short at faux Faulknerisms like the following: “Got-damn, Lad, that ain’t your dead daddy’s pecker you’re holding. Put a squeeze on it the way you do them purse strings of yours.” He’s not Flannery O’Connor either: “It’s some folks will eat horse balls, but we ain’t them folks.”
Another problem is the way Machart repeats the same physical details over and over to mark his characters. Vaclav makes his sons pull a plow instead of using mules, and the result is that for the rest of their lives two of the boys lean to the left and two lean to the right. This seems ridiculous, but Machart repeatedly mentions Karel’s cockeyed neck, including three times on one page. Even a minor character’s eyebrows can produce unintentionally comic effects: “At better than eighty, the priest had a full head of hair, his brows lush, overgrown tangles that, had he found an outdoor occasion to stretch himself onto his back during the previous day’s gusts, would have made for his eyes more than adequate windbreaks.”
The most mysterious character in the novel is a Mexican named Villaseñor, who shows up in Lavaca County with a bunch of money, two armed guards, and three beautiful daughters. Villaseñor offers six hundred acres of land to Vaclav if Karel can best one of his daughters, Graciela, in a horse race. Karel quickly falls in love, only to see Graciela married off to one of his brothers when she wins the race. However, he does get to enjoy her physical delights on the night of the competition (for some reason, the novel’s two big horse races take place at night), though the prose gives one pause: “At the very tip of him, at the deepest point within her, there is a tightening, a hot wire of pleasure that is tethered to the base of his spine, strung from there to his navel and down to his tailbone.” Ouch.
Despite such overreaching, Machart has talent. He makes the bleak farm country of Lavaca County come alive in passages such as this bit of pastoral: “Still, these were the days . . . of tomatoes come summertime, of railcars piled with maize and dimpled, rust-colored sweet potatoes, of dense bales of cotton and hay, of cattle herds that had been spared the foot-and-mouth outbreaks that had so plagued the panhandle way up north, of steers so plentiful that the slaughterhouse pens down county stayed full and the stench of the Yoakum tannery could water one’s eyes from a half mile away.” He also brings something new to Texas period fiction: a depiction of how Czech immigrants adapted to their new home by becoming über-Southerners and hillbillies, merging their language, religion, and social practices with traditional Texas mores.
Such hybridity mirrors the novel’s genre ambitions. The Wake of Forgiveness has stock elements of a western (a greedy banker, exotic Mexicans, hard men living in a hard land), yet it’s more of a family saga, reminiscent of Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. There are no violent shoot-outs to resolve the plot’s central conflicts; in Machart’s Lavaca County, more people die in bed than in showdowns on Main Street. This too is part of the history of early Texas, though not one we usually choose to read about. Texans don’t, after all, want novels about our Confederate past; we don’t want urban fiction or farming fiction. What we want is the next Lonesome Dove or All the Pretty Horses. And every decade or so a writer comes along who elevates the tropes of the western to the heights of that increasingly threatened category labeled literary fiction. But the next McMurtry, the next McCarthy, has not yet come into view.
TEXTRA CREDIT: What else we’re reading this month
Big Red, Red McCombs and Don Carleton (UT Press, $29.95). The life story of the celebrated Texas businessman and former owner of the San Antonio Spurs. Buy it at amazon.com.
Hill Country Deco, David Bush and Jim Parsons (TCU Press, $35). Hundreds of photos of beautiful vintage buildings that dot the landscape of Central Texas. Buy it at amazon.com.
Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories (Norton, $35). A collection of works by the late Fort Worth—born master of the macabre. Buy it at amazon.com.