REVIEW: Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Saenz
WARNING: SUICIDE ATTEMPT, DRUGS, ATTEMPTED MURDER AND ASSAULT – HATE CRIME
Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s stories reveal how all borders—real, imagined, sexual, human, the line between dark and light, addict and straight—entangle those who live on either side. Take, for instance, the Kentucky Club on Avenida Juárez two blocks south of the Rio Grande. It’s a touchstone for each of Sáenz’s stories. His characters walk by, they might go in for a drink or to score, or they might just stay there for a while and let their story be told. Sáenz knows that the Kentucky Club, like special watering holes in all cities, is the contrary to borders. It welcomes Spanish and English, Mexicans and gringos, poor and rich, gay and straight, drug addicts and drunks, laughter and sadness, and even despair. It’s a place of rich history and good drinks and cold beer and a long polished mahogany bar. Some days it smells like piss. “I’m going home to the other side.” That’s a strange statement, but you hear it all the time at the Kentucky Club.
Dear Benjamin Alire Saenz,
I loved your book “Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe” and started to read this collection of short stories shortly thereafter. It just so happened that I read three or four of the novelettes/short stories and put it aside. Recently I picked the book up again, reread what I read previously and finished it.
“The slant of morning light made him look like he was about to catch on fire. Every Sunday he was there, a singular, solitary figure—but not sad and not lonely. And not tragic. He became the main character of a story I was writing in my head. Some people are so beautiful that they belong everywhere they go. That was the first sentence of the story. I always noticed what he was reading: Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis, Faulkner. He was in love with serious literature. And tragedy. Well, he lived on the border. And on the border you could be in love with tragedy without being tragic.”
This is how the first novelette “He has gone to be with the women” begins. The blurb talks about the Kentucky Club being a touchstone for every story and it is true that in every story the characters visit it, but I am not sure about it being an important setting or important “character” in the story. I mean I realize that was intentional, but for me they just as well could have done their talking and drinking anywhere else.
I highly recommend trying the sample of this collection before buying it. I think it is a good idea to try a sample of every book, but the author’s writing style is unusual. For me it worked very well, I know the author also writes poetry and I think poetic is a very good way to describe it – short sentences, very clean, very beautiful and song-like, but opinions may differ. Here is another excerpt for you to consider also from the first novelette. There are seven of them in this collection.
The young men who tell us the stories of their lives were very sympathetic narrators – their lives were not very happy though for various reasons. The author shows us a lot of not very caring parents, the narrators’ attempts to find love and them being scared of that. The author also shows us what it means to be Mexican and Mexican American – how authentically he shows is not my place to evaluate, but considering that this is author’s own heritage, I will defer to his knowledge and experience.
To me the most heart breaking story in the collection was “The art of translation”. It deals with the survivor of the xenophobic attack trying to come back to the “land of living” slowly but surely. The most gut kicking moment is that the year is 1985. I could have easily dated it as 2018, sadly.
“Shouldn’t everyone’s scars be silent and hidden? Shouldn’t we all pretend perfection and beauty and the optimism of a perfect day in spring? Why not? This was America, the country of happiness, and we had come from Mexico, the most tragic country in the world. And the only thing me—and those like me—were allowed to feel was gratitude. The boys who had hurt me, they spoke a different language and it was not a language I understood and maybe never would understand.”
“I wondered what they felt because all I felt was that I was left for dead on the outskirts of Albuquerque on a warm night when I had stepped out to mail a letter. That was all I was doing, mailing a letter at the post office and then I heard someone yelling names at me and then I was being dragged away and kicked and everything changed. And here I was in a hospital room, not dead, not dead. But I knew that something in me had died. I did not know the name for that something.”
Most of the stories were quite dark really, and beautiful at the same time.
As some of the other reviewers already stated the last story “The hurting game” actually gave the most hope to me as well. Which is hopeful in comparison to others, sure, but it is not like we have kittens and unicorns running around at the end.
Since I glanced at other reviews, I also wanted to state what I thought about the criticism I had seen in several reviews. Absolutely I agree that the stories deal with the very similar theme and the narrators deal with similar pain, but to me it made sense, I really did not think that the author was trying for thematic variety.