Brute writing is the hardest sort. The writer runs the risk of alienating his reader, of failing to sell grunts and double negatives and brusque sentences, of penning something that sounds unnatural—a Yankee trying on a cowboy tone. Novel-length successes are hard to come by. For someone—in this case, Bruce Machart—to make it work for an entire short story collection—in this case, Men in the Making—is remarkable.
(Plug: Men in the Making is out today! Go get it!)
There are dead dogs and sparse landscapes. There are debarkers and pickup trucks. Whiskeys on the porch and guns and nine-year-olds swigging beer; embellishments and pre-dawn risings and rivalries between Oklahoma and Texas—not even the state schools, the goddamn people.
Two themes run concurrently through Men in the Making: the American south and the American male. From the opening pages, it’s not unforeseeable; Machart writes in a harsh, conversational tone, focusing on blue collar, everyday occurrences—life, death, grief, purse-snatching, embarrassment, anxiety, manipulation. Just because it’s routine doesn’t mean it’s pleasant or neutral or altogether not harmful. Every day there is pain and frustration. Sometimes there’s worse. Machart swings between those two points.
Following up on his 2010 debut The Wake of Forgiveness, Machart squeezes ten stories into 187 pages. Like Justin Torres’ We the Animals—another Houghton Mifflin Harcourt release earlier this summer (good year, peeps)—Men in the Making is deceptively thin. Machart’s stories—particularly “Because He Can’t Not Remember” and “We Don’t Talk That Way in Texas”—resound in haunting tones.
“Because,” perhaps most of all. Shifting from two men on opposite sides of a robbery, “Because” packs a punch, eighteen pages about manhood and brotherhood and aging and parenthood and courage and loss and breast milk and minutiae; forgotten conversations and a man’s inability to forget. Men becoming.
And how. Machart’s stories explore now only how men are made, but how they make and what makes them, and who decides they’re made and when. And how. And if they can say they’re made and on what terms: when they publish a story in Reader’s Digest (“Where You Begin”), when they feel guilty about the “hard, roadside” infidelity (“A Moment of Fidelity”), or when they’re man enough to be straight with their kin (“The Last One Left in Arkansas”). It is a worthy motif.
Of course, it’d be less worthy if Machart didn’t make so much hay. And there’d be less hay if I wasn’t sitting there wondering myself what the hell makes me a man other than my genitalia? Life isn’t a Marlboro commercial, surely, but there is some pleasing guttural reassurance in a pair of boots or the swinging of a hammer or the thud of a basketball. Sweat pooling between the Adam’s apple and the heart. Chest hair and a furrowed brow. It feels nice to be a man. I don’t know if it’s society—some misplaced (?) nostalgia for “Mad Men” men.
Machart takes this ambiguous thing, this possibly antiquated notion of manhood, and spreads it across ten moving, sweeping, powerful stories. It’s something. They are devastatingly pure, these stories. It would be reductive to say they are minimalistic or anything like that; they’re just measured. They’re just right.
If Machart himself falls—at any time—it’s in his grating willingness to wanton the reader in overly poetic second-person passages that would work, were they not so frequent or unsubtle. But, in totality, a minor nitpick from a ten-story collection. The pieces prevail regardless, due in some part to Machart’s skill for voice-driven fiction: two parts Carver, one part “Dukes of Hazzard.”
Machart has distilled all the tension and pain and regret from this quest or desire for manhood into a single moment in his characters’ lives. He has found that pivot point, that moment when they will either rise to become men—men in their own minds and in others’, men who are just men—or when they will fall into that aged purgatory, that state where—in their own minds and others’—they never make the passage, they never become men; they never fulfill the obligation or attend to the tasks that makes the men; they don’t even know what those tasks are; they don’t know what can make them men—the limbo-men.