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The seven stories in this simply but beautifully written, haunted and haunting collection are told from the point of view of male protagonists. Many are teenagers with artistic interests, or adult visual artists or writers, and it is difficult not to see these men as stand-ins for the author, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, an award-winning poet, novelist and writer of books for children and young adults, who came out as gay at the age of 54.
The stories in Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club are set in the border cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the second largest bi-national metropolitan area on the U. S. – Mexico border. Located two blocks south of the Rio Grande on Avenida Juarez, The Kentucky Club is a-not-much-to-look-at bar that all the characters have a connection to, visit, or dream about. As Michael says in “The Hurting Game,” “The Kentucky Club was code for home” (pg. 198).
Sáenz begins the collection with one of its best stories, “He Has Gone to be with The Women,” a beautiful and ultimately heart-breaking story of gay male love and loss that sets the tone for the rest of the book. The men in Kentucky Club are wounded in some way, and, considering its setting, it’s not difficult to understand why. Juárez was once the deadliest city in the world, with over 2000 people killed during the worse of its drug-related violence. The terrible facts about this locale makes an appearance in “He Has Gone,” and “The Rule Maker,” where Max, suddenly abandoned in El Paso by his addict mother, finds himself growing up with his drug dealing father. Conrad in “Chasing the Dragon” negotiates conflicting messages (and memories) from his family while his sister Carmen slowly succumbs to drugs.
However, not all the stories are touched by addition. Nick in “The Art of Translation,” has to relearn the meaning of words while recovering from a brutal race-bashing. After a suicide attempt, Charlie discovers surprising family secrets in “Brother in Another Language.” And the teenager in 1960’s El Paso in “Sometimes the Rain” could be any young man desperate to get out of any small town. Ultimately Sáenz reveals that his true subject is survival, and trying to live through pain, grief and loss. As Tom writes in his goodbye letter to his lover in the final story:
“I’m sorry I’m so fucked up. But we’re all fucked up, don’t you know that? Maybe that’s the key to it all, that we’re all fucked up. And the only way to survive is to do the love thing, you know? Yeah, I think I called it the hurting game. Yeah, love hurts…You don’t have a choice, babe. You don’t…it’s not love that’s the hurting game. It’s life. Life is the hurting game. Don’t you know that, babe? Oh, babe, don’t you know that?
Benjamin Alire Sáenz became the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. He is also nominated for two 2013 Lambda Literary Awards, for both Kentucky Club and his Young Adult book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. For everyone who’ve ever looked around a run-down bar and wondered who the various first timers and regulars were and what their lives were like, Sáenz has supplied a moving collection of answers.
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
By Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Cinco Puntos Press
Paperback, 9781935955320, 180 pp.