A Novel Concept

Kirstin Valdez Quade Nails it With Captivating Debut Novel

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By Michael Malone

The Five Wounds“The Five Wounds,” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, is a highly entertaining novel. The book is brimming with riveting characters who find themselves in exceedingly difficult situations, typically after putting themselves in exceedingly difficult situations. Those characters will occupy your headspace for a bit.

Amadeo Padilla is 33. He is unemployed and battles alcoholism. He lives with his mother in a small house in New Mexico.

In an effort to get his life headed in the right direction, Amadeo agrees to portray Jesus when his morada – a low-rent church run out of a gas station – acts out the Passion on Good Friday, Jesus hauling the cross, then hanging from it. Years before, the guy playing Jesus agreed to have actual nails hammered through his hands. Amadeo wonders if he has the nerve to agree to that.

Amadeo is anxious about hauling the cross and the nails and life in general. His anxiety multiplies when his estranged daughter Angel turns up, eight months pregnant and looking for a place to live after a fight with her mom.

Angel, 15 years old, is a high school dropout.

Fortunately for the Padilla clan, there is Amadeo’s mother Yolanda, an assistant to an elected state government official. While Amadeo does not have a job, he does get Yolanda to shell out $1,200 for a windshield repair kit he’d seen advertised on late-night TV. He plans that as his next business venture.

Yolanda holds the household together – and does not tell her son or granddaughter about her brain tumor.

Angel, meanwhile, works toward her GED at a school for teen mothers and mothers-to-be called Smart Starts. Running that program is Brianna, an earnest young lady who makes the crucial mistake of sleeping with Amadeo.

It is tough going for the Padilla clan. Amadeo opts for actual nails through his hands in the crucifixion, and ends up in the hospital. He loses his license due to drunk driving and must rely on Angel to drive him.

“Everywhere they go, sunlight flashes off windshields, catches in the cracks and divots, and from his place in the passenger seat, the cracks seem to Amadeo like scattered diamonds waiting to be gathered,” Quade writes.

Angel falls for a girl in her class who has been through brutal sexual violence, and gets her heart broken. She has a baby boy and clashes fatefully with Brianna, her role model.

Another major character is the New Mexico landscape. Quade writes, “…the vast deserts began to feel just desolate. The landscapes changed, from sage to scrub brush to agave, briefly to dry ponderosa forest, then back to stunted prickly pearl and yucca, but to Yolanda, it all looked dead.”

“The Five Wounds” was a short story that ran in The New Yorker in 2009. A few years later, Quade was approached by a book editor and asked about going novel-length with it. The book was published in 2021.

It takes place from one Good Friday to the next. The way Quade writes, you feel as if you are in the house with Amadeo, Angel and Yolanda. You can smell Amadeo’s spent beer cans and Yolanda’s rice and beans. You root for the characters to overcome the very difficult situations they face. You want Amadeo’s windshield repair business to take off. You want Angel to love her newborn. You want Yolanda to win the cancer battle.

I did have a few issues. The title does not work for me. Five generations of the Padilla clan are represented in the book, including Yolanda’s uncle. Better Catholics than me know about the Five Holy Wounds Jesus sustained during his crucifixion, but that’s a term most readers are probably not familiar with.

Another issue involves baby Connor and what happens when his grandfather drives drunk with the baby. Maybe a miracle takes place, but to me, it just felt like Quade let Connor, and the reader, off way too easily.

To be clear, many readers adore this novel. It has a 4.14 average, out of 5, from 17,000 GoodReads readers. A review in The Guardian stated that the “story ticks along with a strong sense of horrible inevitability – every poor decision excavated and made very real. You are utterly within these characters, and within their world – dreaming of a better life, just as they do. After a slow start, “The Five Wounds” turns into a propulsive, immersive story that reckons wisely with the real cost of redemption.”

The Chicago Review of Books said, “Kirstin Valdez Quade takes no half swings and refuses to write a character half-heartedly. Readers will love her characters for all their beauty and boils, and will find themselves captivated, frustrated, gutted and hopeful for them as well.”

As Amadeo tries to come to terms with his mother’s cancer, he visits the gas station church, and works hard to decipher the duality of religion in his mind. He thinks of Jesus’s mother, Mary.

“Even if she loved her son and was proud of him, and liked the stuff he was saying about love and humility and all that, surely she sometimes wondered if her kid was nothing more than a deluded narcissist, with gifts, not of prophecy or divinity, but mere charisma,” Quade writes.

A man Amadeo knows asks him to pray with him and his heroin-hooked son.

“Amadeo thinks not of himself, but prays, truly prays,” Quade writes, “for this lost young woman and this addicted man and for this father who loves him.”

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 


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