Santa Fe writer/photographer Nancy Wood has achieved something I'd dreamed of reading but hadn't encountered to my critical satisfaction—a Southwest picaresque that blends Deadwood's gothic-humored darkness with Gabriel García Marquéz's magical realism. In other words, Wood, 64, writes like a horny young man steeped in Graham Greene, Isabel Allende and Mad magazine. (I mean this as a compliment.) Indeed, Wood's The Soledad Crucifixion nearly nails masterpiece status.
Wood understands Pueblo tradition, having published many books on or related to the subject for the last 40 years. Soledad, though, is an imaginative work that pushes against realism to spin a satirical and enthralling yarn. The novel's protagonist is Lorenzo Soledad, a prodigal and matricidal priest who enters the church at 16 to avoid jail. Raised in a whorehouse in the fictional town of Batwing, Texas, Soledad accidentally shoots his beautiful hooking mom in the head in a badly aimed effort to save her from an abusive john. The act haunts him throughout his life yet hardly tempers his lust. Even within a high-walled Franciscan seminary, Soledad's appetite for womanflesh runs unchecked, leading him to bed a kitchen scrubbing girl.
Soledad is no mere unscrupulous seducer in a vestment. He's a knotty soul, sensitive to his fraudulent qualities and faith-doubting. He possesses deep feelings for the Indians, who suffered at the brutal hands of Europeans during the height of the Inquisition. He may have even seen the face of God in the leaves of a eucalyptus tree. After Soledad is ordained and sent to desperately impoverished parishes in the New Mexico Territory, he works hard for and on behalf of the Indians. Still, he allows his inner Lothario to roam. It almost costs him his life on many occasions.
Soledad gets one last chance to avoid defrocking. He arrives at a glorified asylum of a town, Camposanto (Spanish for "old cemetery"), wherein resides the made-up Calabaza tribe of Indians. Like the tragicomic, magic-tinged cast of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the inhabitants posit a skewed, aggressive and charming nature-centered spirituality. There are ghosts around, too, as Soledad learns from a villager.
"What is that singing, Juan Lobo?" Soledad asked.
"It's only the dead Spaniards, Padre," Juan Lobo replied. "Buried here in the cornfield these many centuries. Whenever they are lonely or frightened or tired of being trapped in the earth, they sing the most wonderful alabados from their old morada days. Listen."
Soledad climbed down from the wagon, his heart racing. He put his ear to the ground. Yes, he heard singing—lovely ballads and laments sung in the old language of Cervantes, drifting out of the hard, red earth.
It's a spooky, compelling moment—there are many like it in Wood's novel—that is presented and then quickly dropped, never to return again. In a more conventional story, introducing a cornfield haunted by the specters of fallen conquistadors would lead to defining plot point. But Wood perpetually strives to keep the surface language and atmosphere rich and lyrical. As a result, she undermines her plot—if there is one. The author further and needlessly complicates things by telling her story out of order, revealing the ending (hint: it's in the book's title) in the first 20 pages. Wood also adds a character called The Stranger who may or may not be Soledad's father—the answer is never resolved. She even frames the larger narrative with a trifling tale of two Vatican priests, one old and the other young, who travel to America to interview those who knew Soledad so as to confirm or deny his canonization. Naturally, the couple ends up learning more about themselves.
But Wood's biggest sin is to deny her character a chance to evolve. While Soledad is a breathtakingly pleasurable read, sentence by sentence, the titular antihero doesn't develop enough to warrant spending 300 pages with him. Dying, he is as childish, desire-wracked and well intentioned as when he was a 16-year-old brothel spawn. If Wood is making a serious or satirical point about martyrdom—in Soledad's case, it takes a village of capricious, amusing, cross-erecting halfwits—I can't detect it.
Or maybe I just don't see the value. In any case, a pulpier, less affected treatment of Soledad would have strengthened the overall narrative. Still, Wood deserves praise for writing the best literary post-Western in recent memory.