This powerful account of a widower and his four motherless sons moves back and forth in time between 1895, 1910 and the mid-1920s in Dalton, Texas. When Czech immigrant Vaclav Skala awakens one morning to find his pregnant wife’s blood leaking away from her along with their fourth son, his heart hardens, whatever tenderness had been brought into his life annihilated with her: “Her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before her met her, one only her proximity had softened.”
In the following years, Skala’s only joy comes from winning parcels of land from his neighbors in racing wagers, Vaclav inordinately proud of his two splendid horses. In sharp contrast, his four sons are yoked as beasts of burden to work the soil, their necks canted by their efforts to plow in tandem. The youngest, Karel, never knows the touch of his mother or her affection, nor does he receive any kindness or acknowledgment from his father. Consequently, part of Karel’s spirit grows as crooked as his neck, forever hoping for a touch that never comes, save the occasional sting of a ready whip.
The family drama takes a sudden turn with the appearance of Guillermo Villasenor, a wealthy foreigner who drives his surrey onto Skala’s land to offer a match between his three beautiful daughters and the Skala boys. Tempted by the opportunity to gain more acreage in the race, Skala agrees. This race is one of the most riveting accounts in Machart’s unfolding drama, as deep as the American psyche and the hard hearts of men whose vision entertains no obstacles. The result is a rift, Karel experiencing in one fateful night the lessons of manhood and the foolishness of hope; “This is the bloodlust of brothers, the vengeful rage of the father, all of it born out and somehow flawless in its wickedness.”
The seeds of resentment are sown and take root in the four brothers, Karel the one who shoulders the weight of Vaclav’s intransigence, a young man who must step away from his father’s shadow to know any peace in his own life. At the heart of all this pain, this agony of men who bottle up their rage and fear while roaming the vast lands of their heritage, is the absence of a woman who marks this family. Hardly able to bear the telling, the males in this part of Texas know well the truth of it: “Ain’t a woman ever been paid enough for all that gets taken from her.”
Machart’s prose is stark, brutal and rich in images: pools of mud; buckshot in a thick bath of blood in a porcelain bowl; the welcome oblivion of strong liquor; the scent of indiscretion the morning after; pale shapes on a water-dampened photograph; a curtain of long black hair and a girl named Graciela who offers a young man temporary solace and a permanent memory. Furious with a world that plunders his wife and leaves a squalling infant in her place, Skala’s heart is turned to stone, his boys paying the steep price of that loss. There is much to be said about forgiveness in this exquisite novel, four brothers with canted necks who share the same blood and a woman who, for a while, made her husband smile.