A Bar in Juárez

A new book tells seven stories with a bar full of nostalgia as the centerpiece

At one point in one of these sculpted, thoughtful stories, the point-of-view character sits in a bar waiting for his date. He's in one of those old hotel bars, and it has a Tiffany dome. "It was so perfect and intricate," he says, that "I felt for a moment, that I was in a church. But wasn't that what bars were—churches for people who'd lost their faith?"

Well, in the particular pews of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, attendance is up. It's place for communion, for bringing folks together. A longing for completion or wholeness runs through the stories, and Juarez's Kentucky Club bar has a cameo in each of them.

In his seven-story collection, poet, novelist, and children's and young adult author Benjamin Alire Sáenz creates a collection of people who are to some degree fractured. Whether through ethnicity—Mexican-American; the border, particularly El Paso/Juárez; age—often late adolescent; sexual orientation—some bi-sexual or gay; and parent-child relations—all of Sáenz's characters are straining to hold together some fissures.

It's not the point-of-view character in the first story, "He Has Gone to be With the Women," who seems to be broken. As the story opens, the middle-aged El Paso narrator is comfortable in his life of reading, writing novels, and painting. He's jarred out of routine, however, by meeting Javier, a handsome young chauffeur from Juárez. Javier's challenges—murdered father, disappeared mother, conflicted loyalty to his violent city—that drive the story, but his challenges inevitably open up and transform the narrator, whom, he had claimed before, "nobody knew." This is a love story for a city and between men, and one eventually does not abide the other.

Love and being "known" or understood are recurring themes in the book. In the coming-of-age "Sometimes the Rain," quiet, bookish Ernesto, a natural runner but not a natural athlete, befriends Brian, one of the jocks who harassed him off the cross-country team. Both are sons of abusive fathers, both are anxious to get out of Los Cruces, but Ernesto is puzzled that popular Brian would spend time with him. It's hearing Brian having sex with another boy that flips on Ernesto's light. Reserved but resourceful, hard-working, and intelligent, Ernesto will prove his worth to surprisingly unresourceful Brian (via, among other things, drinks at the Kentucky Club), but they will just miss being "known" to each other.

Google the Kentucky Club of the title, and you'll find photos of a Juárez bar that's unprepossessing from the outside, but richly nostalgically chic inside. It's a 40's/50's period place, where American movie stars are said to have drunk, with a gleaming mahogany bar and polished glassware. For decades it was the destination for Americans crossing over to party, and it's Sáenz's central metaphor. He sets couples in flashback there, in crowded sophistication; he sets his contemporary characters there in lonely, rueful recognition that Juárez is now too dangerous to attract much of the old cross-border traffic. To his characters who still love the city, however, the Kentucky Club provides secular communion.

And these characters need communion. They have addictions, suffer from neglect, abandonment, anger, sex, drugs.

All these play a role in "Chasing the Dragon," in which college freshman Conrad is haunted by questions about his dead parents. He and his older sister Carmen are the children of a beautiful, aloof mother who killed herself and an equally handsome, philandering, angry man. Caught up in the drama of their own lives, their parents were apparently incapable of expressing love for their children. It takes strength to break life patterns imposed by careless parents.

The effect of love withheld or unexpressed is central to the work, as is a longing for it—recognized or not. Also recurring is the yen to feel alive, and not simply exist. For the sensitive men in these stories, love, books, and art (plus therapy or a good desert rain) can create that.

You can feel the poet and picture-book writer (along with the UTEP Creative Writing Department chair) behind these stories; there's art in the book design; there's music in the language, and performance in the pacing ... you can read them aloud. They're audience-aware: men and boys get beaten; women get murdered; children get neglected; people engage in sex, but off-stage; Sáenz's focus is on their effects on character. And he creates sympathetic, sensitive characters who, despite forces against them, can manage to find their way. And who occasionally sip bourbon in an elegant, aging Mexican bar.

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