The book is a western in the broadest sense. It is really literature. The language is lush, exquisite, and unforgettable. The work is the debut (!) novel of a young man, but reads as if it were written by a much older man. If I tell you the book is black…dark like I have rarely read, you may be reluctant to dip your head in. But the title has the word forgiveness in it, and it is so. Forgiveness that falls like drops of rain on a parched and cracked soil. It is so unexpected, I didn’t trust it at first. But as one cruelty begets another, one kindness begets another, and so it is with forgiveness. It’s a lesson we need to see again and again to believe.
The main character, Karel, is the youngest of four brothers born to a Czech immigrant farming in Texas at the turn of the twentieth century. Karel’s birth killed his mother, leaving the family warped for the cooling comfort of a loving hand. Life was hard and could be cruel: the boys pulled the plow in the crusty ground until there was a permanent cant to their necks. The family has amassed a large landholding from neighboring farmers when Karel wins land bets jockeying ranch horses. One day a wealthy Spaniard with three nubile daughters makes a race wager.
There will be inevitable comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. Hardscrabble lives lived on the border is the same. The density of feeling is the same. The darkness is the same. I would like to make the case that McCarthy’s work has a lyricism when describing the nature, and the natural way of things, that seems age-old and universal while Wake... focusses more on the blackness in family relations, in men’s hearts. That is not to say Machart doesn’t “do” nature. He is more than skilled in describing the rain, the territory. But nature is not a character, the way it is so central in McCarthy’s work. Machart’s “black”:
“If anything, this was what Karel missed about the company of his brothers—their hardness and loathing had shored up his own, given him title to his own hatred. But there was something else: The older boys had also admired their father—his stubbornness and sharp tongue, the way he refused to beckon the help of other men—and so had Karel, and it was this admiration that he couldn’t cotton to. The reverence for a man you surely hated, the hard plaque of respect that all the bad blood couldn’t scour from your heart. This, too, he and his brothers had shared, and the bile of a common indigestion that rose from the two brands of unsuited feelings had been easier to swallow when there were others around who were burning inside with the same struggle to choke it down.”
Wake... reminds me of a New York Review of Books book that will be republished in 70 years to accolades. “He tells it like it was….” they will say, “A master of writing style…” It is classic, in the ways authors with great skill can paint pictures that seem indelible. But there are reasons why we would not want to wait 70 years to read it. We need to carry the lesson of forgiveness with us every day.
If you read and liked this book, I urge you to pick up another novel by a debut author that I was reminded of while reading Wake...: American Rust by Philipp Meyer, published by Random House. ...Rust won numerous awards, i.e., New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Economist Book of the Year (2009), A Washington Post Top Ten Book of (2009), Kansas City Star Top 100 Book of (2009), Newsweek's "Best. Books. Ever", but I don't think it made the bestseller lists. Don't let these great books languish.
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