NEW YORKER Stories
"The Five Wounds" is obviously — perhaps too obviously — a virtuoso performance by a young writer, and it is no surprise to learn from the front of the book that the writer has an MFA from Oregon. The story is as ardently constructed as the cross that Amadeo Padilla, the hero of the tale, puts together for his ceremonial crucifixion: "This year," the story begins, "Amadeo Padilla is Jesus."
It does not take long to figure out what this means. We are somewhere in New Mexico during Holy Week. A religious confraternity will be enacting a Passion on Good Friday, complete with whips and a crown of thorns. (For reasons easily guessed but not discussed, the Church can only turn its back on the proceedings.) The man in charge has designated his great-nephew for the starring role, "because, he told Yolanda, Amadeo could use a lesson in sacrifice." The truc of the story is that this ne'er do well has embraced the assignment. Feckless at everything else, Amadeo plans to succeed at suffering, and perhaps even "redeem" himself.
Ms Quade has set herself a formidable task: depicting the inner life of a man who would probably hit anyone who accused him of having one.
Amedeo hesitates, then drops besides her, grateful, exhausted. He takes a handful of chips when she passes him the bag, thinking about the new feeling swelling in him: he's warm and swaddled, buoyed by forgiveness, suddenly too tired to sleep, to tired to move. They watch the show together, then a second and a third, until Angel goes to bed.
Amadeo wakes to Angel calling him and the sun streaming through the window. Good Friday.
Writing in the present tense is an intelligent deployment. Amadeo lives largely in the present, visited from time to time by flashes from the past that look more like apparitions than memories. One might say that Amadeo lacks ambition — his signature characteristic in the village — because his grasp of time is so weak, but that might be idle over-interpretation.
If Ms Quade is not interested in telling us how Amadeo came to be a 33 year-old layabout, that may be for the very good reason that the information would be of no use to Amadeo himself; such a history would lie well beyond the horizons of his understanding. Amadeo isn't stupid, but he has grown up in a peasant society in which abstractions and modernity are bound together in alien association. This is not to say that Amadeo's world is a picturesque time capsule. Confronted at this inopportune moment by Angel, his pregnant, 15 year-old daughter, Amadeo is visited by a recollection of the girl's mother.
Guilt thick as tar bubbles in his gut, and suddenly he's nineteen again and it's summer, and he's with Marissa in her parents' back yard. They stretch out by the kiddie pool, while Angel plays with a plastic dinosaur. They're talking about Marissa's older sister's new trailer — two bedrooms, full bath, cream carpet — and Marissa says she wouldn't mind a trailer, they could get a trailer, used at first, and beside them Angel splashes, a blade of grass stuck to her chest. Amadeo says, "You won't catch me living in no trailer. Besides, they just lose value," and Marissa says, stubbing out her cigarette emphatically in the grass, "It's not that I wouldn't rather have a house, but when? And we gotta be saving if we ever want to have a place of our own — are you even saving anything?" This is when the fight starts, escalates. Amadeo accuses Marissa of getting pregnant just so he'll have to take care of her, and he calls her dirty, dirty whore. (She isn't, he knows that, hasn't done any more than he has, but ever since she had sex with him he can't look at her the same way.) Then they're both on their feet, and he slaps her, hard across the upper arm, which is bare and exposed in her sleeveless shirt. Marissa staggers back, reaches behind her into air to steady herself, finds no hold, falls.
Amadeo looks at his hitting hand, horrified. But if he were honest he might admit that even as he moved to hit her he knew he could stop himself and knew he was going to do it regardless. The real surprise is the shock on her face, proof that he can act on the world.
Kiddie pool, dinosaur, two-bedroom trailer — all of it more or less plastic, not much unlike the tarry guilt bubbling inside him. The fight begins on the note of that perennial time-related problem, savings. Marissa inhabits a world that Amadeo cannot thrive in.
The climax of the tension between tradition and innovation comes when Angel cajoles her father into letting her see the inside of the confraternity's humble shack, a venue strictly off limits to women. Even pregnant and unmarried, a traditional girl would never ask this question, and a traditional father would never hear of it. It is typical of Amadeo, one can somehow tell, to know that it is wrong to let Angel step inside the morada, but at the same time to suppose that the transgression will go undetected. As the consequences of this misstep reverberate, a second tension sets up, between Amadeo the father of Angel and Amadeo the kid who still lives in his mother's house.
Amadeo goes to his room. The bed is unmade, clothes piled on the floor. He's angrier now — look at this, living here like a surly teen-ager — and comes back out to reclaim the living room. He doesn't know what to do with his hands. Hit a wall, break something, put his daughter in her place. "Don't you even got a boyfriend?"
Amadeo is shaking. "You shouldn't have come here. You think you have a right to just barge in my house and make yourself at home."
Angel's eyes widen, and then she narrows them once more. Slowly, enunciating every word, she says, "It's not your house."
Amadeo thumps the table with his fist and retreats to his room.
The enactment of the Passion the following day is narrated with a faint but discernible cast of surrealism that expresses the shock and violence of Amadeo's ordeal, in which nails, emblems of the man's extraordinary need for transcendence, play a horrifying role.
This is the moment they've been waiting for, and the people crowd closer. Parents nudge their children to the front, turn their babies to face the cross. These children will remember this their whole lives. Perhaps one of them, one day, will make the town proud.
For now, though, the people are proud of themselves, because they were right about this Christ. True, a few of the onlookers might have hoped for a more artistic arrangement of blood, but no one can deny that he looks awful up there; he is exhausted. The man has put himself through Hell for them. Flies land on Amadeo's cheeks and neck, and — mira — he's too tired even to shake them away.
Happily, Ms Quade knows better than to belabor this reminiscence of "The Lottery," and the point of view reverts to Amadeo. Some readers may find Amadeo's pain-laced insight somewhat too coruscating — just as the idea of actually nailing a man to a cross just for the sake of a religious observance will strike others as grossly grand-guignol. But there can be no doubt that Kirstin Valdez Quade has brought a slice of society that's both American and pre-modern to the page, and nailed it with supple and powerful prose, with not a word out of place.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press