Flooded with irony, the first novel by Kirstin Valdez Quade, The Five Wounds reads like a prose poem. Its descriptive details slowly develop the characters, gradually revealing the plot in which a man seeks redemption without understanding the meaning of the concept.
The Hispanic Catholic Church, with its religious art and evocative rituals, forms the backdrop to the story whose title alludes to the wounds of Jesus Christ. His form is on the crucifix in an abandoned gas station. Valdez Quade describes it as “ancient and bloody…the violence is in the sculpture itself…chisel marks dig into the belly and thigh.…One’s real hair hangs limply from the head of the statue.”
Thirty-three-year-old Amadeo Padilla, the novel’s protagonist, will play the role of Jesus in the Good Friday procession. Tattoos of a flaming Sacred Heart beat against Amadeo’s chest, red roses curl down his side and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe shimmers on his back. His name means lover of God and he has a proclivity for alcohol and women. But things will be different now. At least that’s Amadeo’s plan.
Early in the story, Amadeo attempts to explain his religious beliefs to his daughter, Angel. The two are standing in the morada under the fluorescent light bulb, looking at the figure of Jesus on the cross with blood dripping from his neck to his knees. the morada is a former gas station serving as a religious meeting house for Los Hermanos, a brotherhood of Hispanic lay Catholic men. Their meeting place and their practices are secret.
Amadeo’s family has lived in Las Penas for nearly 400 years. His family were among the first Spanish settlers. They preserve Spanish and Mexican religious customs, with one of the most sacred, the Good Friday procession honoring the five wounds of Jesus and commemorating him as he carried the cross until his death on Calvary.
As Valdez Quade says, “Jesus’ pain is personal and cruel”, and Amadeo almost feels it. He believes that Jesus is a living witness to his sins – of which there were many.
Amadeo thinks that by carrying the cross in the procession he can redeem himself, and he wonders if he should ask for the nails to pierce his hands and feet as a sort of stigma and atonement for his sins. His daughter has none of that.
We first see Angel at eight months pregnant, wearing tight jeans, button open at the waist. She wears a white tank top, a black bra and a golden cross above her breasts. Valdez Quade uses words like a poet. Here, she juxtaposes Jesus hanging on the cross with the cross around Angel’s neck. Angel has no regard for Amadeo’s spiritual sense.
Angel argued with his mother. She decided to leave their home and live with her grandmother and father. Only, says Amadeo, it’s a bad time.
In reality, he is ashamed of Angel because she is pregnant and unmarried. She was also conceived out of wedlock, which Amadeo is not proud of. He does not want her to be seen by another member of his religious group of Penitents.
Angel and Amadeo’s mother, Yolanda, are the other two main characters. Valdez Quade tells the story through the perspectives of all three, with each viewpoint embellishing the plot and increasing the tension and irony. She adds authenticity by using many Spanish words and descriptions of the New Mexico landscape where the story takes place.
The sometimes overly long plot focuses on the difficult relationship between Amadeo and Angel but takes many twists and turns along the way.
Yolanda learns that she has brain cancer but refuses to tell anyone. Marissa, Angel’s mother, leaves her abusive boyfriend, Mike. Brianna, Angel’s teacher, is having an affair with Amadeo. Lizette, Angel’s girlfriend, takes drugs and abuses Angel. Connor, Angel’s baby, offers rare moments of grace and seems to be the main beneficiary – after Amadeo – of divine help.
Amadeo feels like everyone is against him. He still lives at home with his mother, the breadwinner, and is devastated to learn that she is terminally ill. He is not able to hold a job. He tries to start a windshield repair business and dirties the hood of the car with a frame. He lost his license for driving under the influence and cannot control his drinking.
Then late at night, Angel calls her to take her home after an argument with Lizette. He is drunk but desperate to help his daughter. He takes the car and the baby to find her. Unfortunately, he forgets to lock the baby chair in the back seat of the car.
As he drives on a country road, a coyote passes right in front of him. The scene is fascinating and especially since coyotes are considered spirit animals, especially in the southwestern regions where they represent a new beginning. Arguably, Valdez Quade relies on coyote symbolism, but this encounter, marking a new moment of insight for Amadeo, changes everything.
This novel is based on a short story of the same title that first appeared in The New Yorker in 2009, and was later included in Valdez Quade’s award-winning short story collection, Night at the Holidays.
In the original short story, Amadeo carries the cross for a Good Friday procession and has an epiphany in which he realizes that the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross is not to suffer to pay for the sins of mankind. . The point is Jesus’ love for people.
Now readers learn how this epiphany affects Amadeo’s life. As Valdez Quade explains, Amadeo had missed the point:
“The [Good Friday] the procession is not about punishment or shame. It’s about having to bear the pain of loved ones. To bear this pain, you must first see it. And see how you inflict it.”
Ultimately, as this richly imagined novel shows, Amadeo has a difficult task but one that can pull it off with a little help from above.