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by Bruce Machart

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-15-101443-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

A wager destroys a farm family in this risk-taking first novel about Czech immigrant landowners in early 20th-century South Texas.

Hard men are grabbing land any way they can. Vaclav Skala has been softened by a loving wife, who has borne him three sons, but when she dies giving birth to a fourth (Karel), he reverts to his old self, the hardest of taskmasters. He has his boys, not horses, plow the fields; they will be marked for life by misshapen necks. In 1910, their lives are upended by the arrival of Villaseñor, a hugely rich Mexican looking for land and husbands for his three comely daughters. He proposes a horserace to Vaclav; if he wins, he’ll marry off his girls. Vaclav, confident in his racehorse and Karel’s riding skills, agrees. The race is a fine set piece. Villaseñor, the superior strategist, has already won over the older boys, who will ignore some dirty tricks. Karel loses to Graciela, the Mexican’s youngest. There are recriminations. After a vicious fight, Vaclav banishes his three oldest, who marry the next day. What next? A violent blood feud? Not at all. Machart is after more than stirring melodrama. The cadences of his formal prose, punctuated occasionally by earthy dialogue, tell you that, just as his shuttling between 1910 and 1924 minimizes suspense. He is making a resonant statement about the deformities of a world in which men make the rules, and mothers are dead or powerless. This involves the introduction, in 1924, of benighted twins, teenage brothers, firebugs who have avenged their dead mother by burning to death the father who brutalized her. There is much more, including bootlegging rivalries and a second deadly fire, but the trouble is, Machart fails to integrate plot and theme, and the novel splinters into a variety of episodes, all of them rendered with flair.

Though he navigates erratically within it, Machart has created a dense, vibrant world, achievement enough for his debut.