EVERYTHING BEGINS AND ENDS AT THE KENTUCKY CLUB
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
2013 has been a big year for prizes for Benjamin Alire Sáenz. At the beginning of the year, his novel for teens Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe won The Stonewall Book Award 2013. This is the American Library Association award for children’s and young adult books of exceptional merit relating to the GLBT experience. Then in late March, he won the very prestigious 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, the first time a Hispanic author has won the award. Kentucky Club is a collection of seven stories, many featuring gay characters, and all linked by a famous bar in the city of Juarez called The Kentucky Club.
The setting for the book is fascinating: El Paso/Juarez is a bi-nation metropolitan area which straddles the Mexican and American border. Juarez is also notorious as a dangerous, lawless place, transformed by the Mexican drug wars. The book very cleverly explores differing and often conflicting identities – gay/straight, Mexican /American – against this setting which is also physically divided. The opening story ‘He has Gone to be with the Women’ is an especially moving and accomplished love story. Two men notice each other as regulars at a coffee shop, and finally strike up a conversation which leads to a love affair. Juan Carlos is a well-known American writer of Mexican heritage; Javier lives in Juarez, but comes to El Paso whenever he can to care for his uncle who is dying of lung cancer. The two men settle into a comfortable routine of spending their weekends together in El Paso, until abruptly their idyll is shattered. In the final story ‘The Hurting Game’, two men of Mexican heritage have an undefined relationship of sorts that somehow endures. When they meet, Tom, a criminal attorney is 45; the narrator Michael, a high school counsellor, is 30. Tom is mysterious, refusing to divulge many personal details or take Michael to his home. He drifts in and out of Michael’s life, until one day, after a long absence, he reappears unexpectedly and finally, Michael learns his secret. Alire Seanz’s stories are often intensely romantic and tragic; characters tend to struggle with addiction, loss or death. But the gay male characters he creates are also refreshingly interesting: often older, wary of the gay scene, but also open to a connection or even love. But what really elevates this collection into something special is this unusual and interesting setting of Juarez/El Paso.