On my 33rd birthday, friends from hither and yon e-mailed best wishes for my Jesus year, an allusion to Christ's earthly life span. In Kirstin Valdez Quade's gorgeously textured new novel, "The Five Wounds," her protagonist, Amadeo Padilla, navigates his Jesus year literally: Cast as Christ in a passion play, he insists on being nailed to a cross, an attempt to redeem, if not the sins of humanity, at least his own history as a selfish alcoholic, absent father and jobless son. And that's just the beginning of his journey toward a transfigured self.
Set in rural New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, "The Five Wounds" is an enchantment of its own.
Quade delivers on the promise of her debut collection, "Night at the Fiestas," which won the National Book Critics Circle's Leonard Prize for first book. Her sinewy sentences and emotional daring astound. Amadeo "is no silky-haired, rosy-haired, honey-eyed Jesus, no Jesus-of-the-children, Jesus-with-the-lambs. Amadeo is muscled, hair shaved close to a scalp scarred from the teenage fights, roll of skin where skull meets neck."
His atonement is jolted when his estranged pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, shows up on his doorstep, cracking jokes. His long suffering mother, Yolanda, hides a secret; his sister Valerie mocks his failures; his great-uncle Tío Tíve pushes back on addictions that have blighted the village of Las Penas, claiming his own son too soon.
And in the aftermath of Easter and the arrival of Angel's baby, the Padillas must spin a fragile web against unexpected threats. They must come together as a family.
In fits and starts Amadeo travels a road to resurrection, veering from DWIs to hospital bedsides. He's trying hard to seam cracks in his relationships. He hires Angel as a driver for his new windshield-repair business.
"Angel sits as upright as a debutante, gripping the wheel. When a song she likes comes on, her scowl breaks and she sings along, shimmying and bopping intently. Amadeo is reminded of Angel as she was when she was a little kid; she has that same intensity of being. Angel so entirely inhabits her own life. Amadeo can't remember ever feeling that he belonged to his life, not when he was sixteen or six or twenty-six. … Now, though, as his daughter taps her thumbs on the wheel to the music, it occurs to him that life has started."
Quade immerses us in the world of Las Penas, evoking a torn family on a pilgrimage in search of itself: Franzen-esque saga meets Little Miss Sunshine, with a dash of "Gas Food Lodging." But the novel's vibrant sheen masks deeper, darker currents. Birth — and rebirth — balance against death like yin and yang. Quade glides elegantly across a silken tightrope between comedy and tragedy, twists of fate that buoy her narrative to its resonant conclusion.
"The Five Wounds" is destined to be one of this year's most celebrated works of fiction. Quade is a writer on the move.
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, O, the Oprah Magazine, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Five Wounds
By: Kirstin Valdez Quade.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 432 pages, $26.95.