Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Report--Night at the Fiestas

It will be, I'm sure, among the best books I will read all year--most memorable, most fascinating, most masterful. Kirsten Valdez Quade's Night of the Fiestas is sometimes flat out astonishing in sheer accomplishment. She is, for better or for worse, a writer's writer. Perhaps she'll never make a fortune, but if she continues to write fiction the way she has--she's young!--she'll garner respect and admiration galore.

She has the materials and she knows it. Her family can trace its roots back to 17th century New Mexico, northern New Mexico, where some practices of regional Roman Catholicism can seem quite medieval. That rare world provides settings rich with magic and mystery borne from a kind of spirituality as shocking as it is fascinating. She knows that world and uses it bountifully, beautifully.

Quade is a writer's writer because as a performer she's a master juggler. Really accomplished fiction tosses wholesale items and ideas and actions into the air all at once creating a scrambled mess of bowling pins, torches, or chain saws, each of which have to be caught successfully by story's end. "How on earth is she going to do this?" you ask yourself in every story, but she does. Miraculously--a word that has special meaning in her work--she does.

She's a writer's writer because her characters seem familiar but never are. Crystal, in "Ordinary Sins," gets drunk, then laid when she's pregnant with twins. She's unmarried, and the father of her babies has no presence whatsoever in her life or even in the story. She is faithless and promiscuous, and, oddly enough, a church secretary, and the most important person in her life is a warm-hearted priest who won't let her fall any farther than she already has. We know these characters, have seen them, met them previously in stories and life.

But neither are simply what you think. Great characters drive great stories because great characters are great stories, and that old verity is true in "Ordinary Sins" and in every story in Night of the Fiestas. You may think you recognize types, but beware. People change.

She's a writer's writer because she's not one bit afraid of faith, and faith--for good or ill--may well be the most animating force in the human character, something witness-able in the news every day. Quade is Roman Catholic, and she knows her way around that world because she has been inside it for most of her life. These are not faithless stories; in fact, the opposite is true. Flannery O'Connor, Quade says, is her literary role model, a writer who would not, even could not leave faith alone. It's extraordinary to read stories with Quade's accomplishment that yet hold fast, in extraordinary ways, to faith. Like O'Connor, she's not afraid of mystery, loves it, in fact.

She's a writer's writer because she's gutsy about change. She obviously believes we can, obviously believes we aren't simply passive souls pushed hither and yon by forces so much more powerful than we are. When we discover that the faith of the warm-hearted priest is a is as weak as the secretary's, we're shocked but not unprepared to understand. She does things to her characters that require immense risk, somehow pulls it off, brings those juggled torches in line, makes her characters whole. Doesn't save them, but makes them whole.

There's always hope in her stories, but hope often arrives in ways few of us bargain for. Another character from another story, just as faithless and promiscuous, finds the faith and forgiveness he was looking for when nails are pounded into his hands during a Holy Week processional. That there are no campfire kumbayas in this collection doesn't mean they don't end in hope. 

"I love happy endings," she told me when I asked her about them not long ago. Just a few minutes later, interviewing her in front of a Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing audience, I repeated that line. Someone in the audience raised her hand and said something to the effect of "You could have fooled me" because Quade's stories are exacting. They make demands of a reader. You need to participate, and they may not be everyone's cup of wine. She is, trust me, a writer's writer.

Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Kyle Minor said this of Night of the Fiestas
Quade attempts, page by page, to give up carefully held secrets, to hold them up to the light so we can get at the truth beneath, the existential truth. Perhaps this is as close as we can get to what is sacred in an age in which so many have otherwise rejected the idea of the sacred.
Kirsten Valdez Quade is an amazing writer, an amazing young writer. She's charming, a delight. She starts teaching this year at Princeton.

It's not an easy read--don't think it is. But I don't think I'll find anything as accomplished as Night at the Fiestas, for a long, long time. I loved it.

Just six weeks ago, Kirsten Valdez Quade won the John Leonard Prize for the best first book in any genre, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle.

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