Book Check: Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Title: Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club
Tell Me About the Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz holds the distinction of winning two 2013 Lambda Literary Awards in two distinct categories for two different books. He won the prize for LGBT Children's/Young Adult Book for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, as well as the prize for Gay Fiction for Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club.
Kentucky Club has been one of the most critically lauded story collections of the past year, having won the 2013 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Sáenz, a faculty member of the Creative Writing Department of the University of Texas at El Paso has been publishing since the early '90s in across a broad spectrum of genres, from poetry and short stories to novels and young people's fictions.
And this Book is About What? This set of stories, all linked by the presence of the Kentucky Club on the Mexican side of the El Paso border, is about men. Strong, silent, Mexican men to be exact. An austere subject, and a trope that has been used to the point of stereotype, but these men share a love that belies their toughened, worldly exteriors. Sáenz's men love other men, and love them passionately, loyally and at times to their emotional or mental ruin.
In the first story, "He Has Gone to be with the Women," an older gentleman notices a younger man in the coffee shop where he goes to get his copy of the paper. They meet, they talk, they share coffee and they fall in love. The younger of the two, Javier, lives on the Mexican side of the border in Juarez. There is danger there, and his lover knows it.
The tension that builds in the story is one of impending tragedy, but their relationship is tested by differences in generation, taste, education, profession and experience. Like the men he writes about, Sáenz's prose is clean and unvarnished. The dialogue between the two men is direct and full of meaning, peppered with the occasional kiss. There's plenty of sentiment, but the story is anything but sentimental.
There are also stories of development, such as "The Rule Maker." When a young boy from Juarez is transplanted to El Paso after his mother abandons him to the father he has never met; the reader is treated to a complicated parent/child relationship that defies categorization. The father is a drug dealer, one of local renown and power, but he's also a first-rate provider and mentor.
The young protagonist knows early on that something is not right, that there's a dark reason for why they have a house and car and never have to worry about money even though his father does not work. But he also finds himself loving the stern enigma of a man who is his blood. His father pushes him to do well in school, and does his best to protect him from the dangers of their precarious situation. As the end of the story, the boy is now a freshman at Georgetown, and remembers his father not with contempt, but through the misty valence of one who owes his life to his parent. It's a complicated, bittersweet feeling that laces each of the collection's seven memorable stories.
Should I Read It? Yes, if you want in on a worldview that has never been explored before, at least not on this large of a scale. El Paso might evoke some grisly happenings, but in Saenz's hands it's a place than can adequately be called home. The El Paso of yesteryear that he paints is one where life happens, not death, and where love can bloom in the most unlikely circumstances between the most unlikely of people.
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