Modern redemption in a small New Mexican town

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel depicts everyday Catholicism in a struggling family.

 

A common but useless question in writing-craft interviews asks how budding fiction writers distinguish between ideas for short stories and those for novels. In the early stages, how can a writer know whether a character needs 8,000 words or 800,000? The answer is that there is no answer. Plenty of novels — and this is not an insult — could be compressed into stories; plenty of stories have the intellectual and emotional heft of novels. Some novels start their lives as stories, then refuse to stop growing.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s excellent debut novel, The Five Wounds, belongs to the third category. It emerged from, and shares its title with, one of the best stories in her collection Night at the Fiestas. In it, Amadeo Padilla, an alcoholic, self-hating 33-year-old living with his mother, Yolanda, in Las Penas, New Mexico, plays Jesus in his small town’s Holy Week Passion play, which concludes with a dramatic re-enactment of the crucifixion. Amadeo wants to commit completely to the role, but finds his resolve tested when his 14-year-old daughter Angel shows up during Holy Week, eight months pregnant and wanting to live with him. This tense setup could power a whole novel, even a lesser one than this. In The Five Wounds, Amadeo’s time as Jesus is a prelude to the book’s main action, which shifts between his existential struggle, Yolanda’s battle with cancer, and Angel’s impending motherhood. Less than 40 pages into the novel, the Passion is over. Amadeo’s hopes of attaining “total redemption in one gesture” are dashed.

For Amadeo, redemption is synonymous with personal renovation. He wants to quit drinking; to root himself in both Las Penas and fatherhood; to find work that makes him feel important. After Holy Week, he attempts — and swiftly fails at — all three. Within days, he’s back to drinking, sulking, and lashing out at his family. The question that powers the novel, then, is how Amadeo might find the redemption he sought from the Passion play. How, in “the long dull aftermath of crucifixion,” can Amadeo learn to, as he puts it, “do it right?”

Some novels start their lives as stories, then refuse to stop growing.

Redemption may seem like an old-fashioned theme for a novel — more moralistic than is common in our present literary landscape, which tends to skew toward the relative. Quade is old-fashioned the way Marilynne Robinson, her clear literary kin, is old-fashioned. Both writers devote equal effort to lyric prose and deep characterization, and both are intensely invested in writing about religion in a specific social context: mid-century Midwestern Protestantism for Robinson, and 21st century New Mexico Catholicism for Quade. In the 400 years the Padillas have lived in Las Penas, they’ve seen the town shrink and struggle. Jobs are scarce; heroin, abundant. The hermandad, a Catholic lay organization that runs the annual Passion play is down to nine elderly men, when in “earlier generations, membership rolls … could be in the hundreds.” Amadeo, too, feels shrunken. He is deeply of Las Penas but considers himself inessential, though the town in fact needs him badly; Yolanda’s decline seems to mirror that of the hermandad and the town. Amadeo, as the youngest hermano, is poised to become a community leader, but is too mired in self-pity to do so. He can hardly imagine feeling otherwise; Angel frightens him because, at 14, she strikes him as “a full contributor to the world, proud to be a member in good standing.”

Krystal Quiles / High Country News

Amadeo might not be perceptive, but, in this case, he’s right: Angel struggles with doubt and fear, but, unlike her dad, she knows her worth. She has deep reserves of courage, which she combines with “considerable dramatic flair” to power herself through life. Amadeo wants salvation to be quick and easy, but Angel’s gift lies in her knowledge that quick means dull. Unlike her dad, she accepts that relationships — including our relationships with ourselves — take work. Quade clearly believes that Angel will be an excellent mom, sidestepping any questions about whether a mother that young is capable of being a good one. Her project is not to justify or defend Angel, but to bring her to life. She succeeds so fully that Angel all but steals the show.

Among Angel’s most compelling traits is the fact that she feels no need for redemption; the concept seems barely to touch her. Yolanda, as she dies, revisits her regrets; Amadeo can barely see through his. (In a neat metaphor, Quade has him waste time and money on a half-assed effort to launch a windshield repair business, trying to help others see clearly before he can do so himself.) Angel, meanwhile, has the capacity to put aside her regrets by decoupling experience from sin. She works toward the future without seeking redemption, divine or otherwise, from the past. This reframes redemption completely, moving it from the religious sphere to the social one. Slowly, Amadeo learns to emulate his daughter. The more fully he contributes to the world around him, the more redeemed he feels.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C. Her criticism appears online in the Atlantic, The New Yorker, NPR Books, the Poetry Foundation, Public Books and more. Her translation of Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s Little Bird: Stories is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2021. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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