By Kirstin Valdez Quade
Reviewed by Melanie J. Cordova
Conceptions of New Mexico by mostly white easterners in its early time as part of the United States usually involved notions of danger, something to survive as one traveled from Texas to California and back, before transitioning into its ultra-brief, mostly imagined, so-called “Wild West” days. As travel became easier, ideas of New Mexico involved health and wellness as well as tourism; romantic notions of connecting to the land and finding one’s spiritual center lasted even beyond the atomic era of the mid-century and the dark cowboys of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. The ten stories in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas place this collection in the legacy of American Southwestern literature by openly challenging such romantic notions with an honesty that is refreshingly harsh. Most of the stories in Night at the Fiestas are set in New Mexico, but they contain characters that can pierce a reader from any part of the country. With the land as a springboard into nuanced, flawed, and raw characters, Quade’s Night at the Fiestas is harrowing in the best way.
Land is as important in Night at the Fiestas as it is in any short story collection. Quade does not treat New Mexico or any other location in the collection as if it was some alien landscape. It is rather a place for her characters to go about their lives, a place where their personalities and idiosyncrasies can be explored. Margaret in “Canute Commands the Tides” falls prey to the romantic ideas of an artistic escape, only to have the rug pulled out from under her. She moves to northern New Mexico in the hope that it will revitalize both her life and her art: “It wasn’t much, perhaps, but many artists did their best work in their later years, and Margaret hoped—with all her heart she hoped—that this would be true of herself.” But instead of painting, Margaret finds herself continuously rearranging and resupplying her studio, and relies on her housekeeper, Carmen Baca, to fill her days. Margaret is a voyeur to Carmen’s life, calling her “pleasingly old-fashioned,” but “Canute Commands the Tides” reads almost as a refusal that New Mexico be subject to voyeurism—Margaret has a specific conception of what indigenous culture ought to look like, saying to her husband that the casino she entered was “so tasteless” and “a misguided cheapening of culture.” Margaret is well-meaning, however, which serves to endear the reader to her confusion—she comes into the story assuming people like Carmen live simpler, less complicated lives, but emerges from it with that assumption upended.
Quade’s writing uncovers some of the darkest parts of people and absolutely does not flinch. In “Jubilee,” for example, Stanford student Andrea seeks a peculiar kind of revenge on the daughter of her father’s employer, a big-wig farmer in California’s Central Valley whose party she’s attending. Andrea’s jealousy of Parker reads rather natural at first, almost quirky: “By her very presence today, [Andrea] would prove to them their snobbery and make them ashamed of their entitlement and their halfhearted acts of charity toward her family. Admittedly, her plan was vague, but it involved making Parker eat a taco in front of her.” Yet as the party wears on, Andrea’s intensity and obsession goes into darker territory when she drunkenly confronts Parker on multiple occasions, her new knowledge of “power dynamics” only fueling her fire.
Night at the Fiestas is not without its lighter moments, which are made even sweeter by the honest and severe contrast of what surrounds them. In “Ordinary Sins,” for example, pregnant church office worker Crystal thinks about the two priests she works with: “Crystal enjoyed the thought of the priests chattering away late into the night like girls at a sleepover—but the idea of humorless, aloof Father Leon saying anything that wasn’t strictly necessary defied imagination. Sometimes, to amuse herself, Crystal experimented by greeting him with wide-ranging degrees of enthusiasm, but Father Leon gave her the same solemn nod every time.” Quade’s writing has an excellent sense of humor, placed at key moments in her stories to nuance the honesty of her characters, like when young Claire tries to tell her schoolmates what it means that her family is atheist: “‘It means you have faith in the fossil record,’ Claire had explained, which was how her anthropologist stepfather had explained it to her.” Claire’s story, “Family Reunion,” doesn’t avoid harsher parts of such humor, either, quickly following that lightness with Claire’s heartbreaking insecurities: “Really what it meant, Claire knew, was that you were from the wrong kind of family, a family that rented and wasn’t from Salt Lake City and was disfigured by divorce. It meant that instead of a minivan you had a father in San Diego who drank Fosters for breakfast. It meant you weren’t Mormon.” The stories wash the reader in complex, overlapping emotions that dispel any preconceived notions of a romantic Wild West.
Quade’s focus here in Night at the Fiestas is on people, and while short story collections require a large emotional investment—plunging through a story’s rise and fall ten times over, as well as multiple characters’ lives—this one is well worth the commitment. Quade doesn’t get caught up in a setting that is the pitfall of many others who attempt to write about an uncompromising, real Southwest, and she stuffs our backpacks to bursting with supplies to endure our trek west.
Melanie J. Cordova is the Editor-in-Chief of Harpur Palate. You can find her at @mjcwrites.