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. – from the collection Men in the Making, page 139 –
Bruce Machart writes with a brutal and tender honesty about his characters in his first collection of short stories: Men in the Making. These stories are about men working in sawmills and on the backs of tractors, men who are fathers and husbands and grandfathers, men whose lives are not easy, men who have made huge mistakes and experienced aching regrets, men whose desires are raw and heartbreaking. A common thread of loss runs through most of Machart’s stories. He peels back the rough exterior of these mostly blue collar workers, and reveals the lost dreams, the hopes and the tragedies which fill them up.
The Last One Left in Arkansas opens with a tragedy – a young man has been killed in the debarker in a sawmill. Through this story within the story, Machart allows us into the world of a man, a worker at the sawmill, who has lost a son.
Here in this valley, clear through to March, when on nights like tonight I sometimes sit on the porch in my parka, sipping whiskey and shivering and trying to find just the right prayer for the son I lost eleven years back, or the courage to call the one who’s alive but living hundreds of miles away, often even the clouds turn lethargic, and they sit, and they stay. – from The Last One Left in Arkansas, page 14 –
As the story unwinds, the reader learns how this man has lost not only a son, but a wife and a family. Machart tenderly opens old wounds, exposes the heat of guilt and regret, and leaves us with a small light of hope at the end. What Machart does so well in this story (and all the other stories in his collection) is get beneath the hard exterior of his protagonist and show us not only his vulnerability, but who he really is.
Lose a plant and you learn to respect the elements, to prepare for them. There’s no one to blame but yourself. Lose a child and, for a while, the only thing that can keep you sane and above ground and alive enough to hate yourself is the burn-off of rage you ignite by laying blame somewhere, on something or someone else, so you can keep it from burrowing inside you and living where deep down you believe it belongs. – from The Last One Left in Arkansas, page 21 –
In The Only Good Thing I’ve Heard, Machart also examines the loss of a child – this time a child who is stillborn. The main character in this story is a man who works on a burn unit of a hospital. He is a caretaker, one who puts others’ pain before his own, and so as we learn about his wife’s torment, we almost forget about this man’s grief. And then, in eloquent and simple prose, Machart exposes it:
Now, on the phone, her voice was hushed and broken, and Raymond leaned hard into the receiver, wanting to be there, to feel her breath swirling inside his ear. “You’re okay,” he said, and he knew, for the first time in days, that if she wasn’t, she would be.
“And you, honey,” she said. “How are you?” – from The Only Good Thing I’ve Heard, page 108 –
It is these moments in Machart’s prose where I found myself pausing, felt my heart restricting, because the writing in this collection is gorgeous. It is evocative and honest, and takes the reader right there, into the heart of what it means to be human.
I read Machart’s first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, last year (read my review) and loved the richness of his prose, the complexity of his characters, and his skill at demonstrating the relationship between father and son. That ability is evident in Machart’s short story collection as well – especially in We Don’t Talk That Way in Texas, a story about a nine year old boy who leaves his home in Oklahoma one summer to visit his grandfather in Texas. The boy has never known his father who died in the war, and this is the first time he has met his grandfather who is a rough man, a farmer, and a Texan. The visit, filled with a boy’s first taste of beer, a tractor driving lesson and a hunting trip with an unexpected ending…will reveal a father and his relationship with his father.
There always were, in Grandpa’s way of speaking, lessons to be learned about the way Texans did things, or didn’t do them, and to me, they began that summer to sound like his way of talking about my father without speaking of him directly. – from We Don’t Talk That Way in Texas, page 75 –
All the ten stories in Men in the Making are atmospheric, calling up the landscape and the working people of places like Texas and Arkansas. Machart has a firm grasp of the world in which his characters live.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I loved this collection as I knew I would. Readers will find themselves pulled into the lives of the characters, feeling their sadness, their anger, their regret…they will wish for their redemption and their healing. Highly recommended for those who enjoy the art of the short story and who love beautiful writing which evokes the deepest of emotions.
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