As debut collections go, give or take the odd Junot Diaz or Ray Carver, this is about as good as it gets. The writing is measured and beautiful, witty yet restrained, and there’s not a single dud among these tales.
The ten stories that make up Night at the Fiestas, set in the badlands or sometimes just sleepy lands of New Mexico, resonate with pain and fear and lives gone awry. And the characters, usually young, female and on the cusp of some hard-earned wisdom, are unforgettable.
The best story in the collection – and you can expect to see it reprinted in anthologies for … oh … perhaps the next hundred years – is “The Five Wounds.” Serial loser and absent father Amadeo gets to play the condemned Jesus in his town’s pageant. He bears the cross, literally and metaphorically, for his life has been one long procession of sin and failure. Amadeo’s most famous precursor, Manuel Garcia, had real nails driven into him back in 1962 and “hasn’t been able to open or close his hands since.” As Amadeo walks the Way of Sorrows, accompanied by his neglected and pregnant daughter and the hermanos who will nail him, too, the story takes off and becomes a timeless tale of redemption.
Valdez Quade has an exquisite eye for detail and a superb ear for the rhythms of Spanish-inflected English. She also gets adolescent thought patterns and lingo just right. Take this exchange from the title story:
“… he asked me to dine with him tonight.”
“To dine? What is he, an aristocrat?” But Nancy was looking Frances up and down, impressed.
“Of course I told him I couldn’t. He must be nearly thirty.”
The collection is full of rich dialogue and scenes of perfectly-judged squalor. “Mojave Rats” envisions a family living in a camper van in a paltry desert community, the father doing Ph.D research while the mother, surrounded by dysfunctional neighbors and a sea of dust, tries not to lose her mind.
In “The Guesthouse,” Jeff discovers his father – a chronic drunk – has been living in Jeff’s deceased grandmother’s guesthouse with an enormous boa constrictor and a cage full of rats. Family relationships constitute a major theme of this collection, but there isn’t a drop of sentimentality in sight. Fathers are absent or useless, and sons and daughters eye them with the suspicion of the already-damaged.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It will garner a bucketful of prizes and it represents what I believe will be the beginning of a major literary career.