BY GARTH GREENWELL
The characters in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s masterful collection are all travelers between borders. Most obviously, they cross between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, where each of them at some point finds himself in the bar of the book’s title. But these seven stories are really concerned with more difficult boundaries—of class, language, sexuality—that both set these men apart and divide them from themselves.
Juarez is famous from American headlines as one of the most violent cities in the world. Sáenz, who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, doesn’t look away from its troubles, and his characters live with the knowledge that “all the laughter in the world could be swept away by a capricious wind at any moment.” But their lives aren’t reducible to headlines, and what remains of these stories isn’t the shock of tragedy and crime, but the human response to it.
Tragedy and crime are at the heart of the book’s first story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women.” Two men—one a well-known Mexican-American writer, the other a Mexican visiting to care for a dying relative—speak after months of silent glances in an El Paso café. As they begin to know each other, tentatively and uncertainly, each explores the grief the other carries—two brothers lost to a car accident, a mother to the plague of violence against women in Juarez—and grief becomes an occasion for love. “His tears were soaking my shirt,” the writer says. “I wanted to taste them, bathe in them, drown in them.” “I wasn’t the falling-in-love kind of man,” he says later. “But watching Javier at that moment, I wanted to need him. I wanted him to be the air I breathed.” When Javier disappears, gone to “all the nameless women who have been buried in the desert,” the narrator doesn’t know what to do with the feeling that has been awakened: “I was angry at my own heart that refused to give up hope despite the fact that I begged it to give up.”
Earlier this month, Sáenz was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction—he is the first Latino writer to receive the prize—and the book is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. It has been met with a great deal of praise, but some critics have raised concerns about the emotionality of these stories, hinting at something excessive or melodramatic about them—as though one final border they cross is that of propriety, the closely policed lines of what we sometimes call “good taste,” lines seldom free from often unstated assumptions about race, class, gender, and sexuality.
It may be true that the emotion in these stories strikes a higher pitch than most current American literary fiction. When passion breaks out in these pages, often after being long repressed, it can take on operatic force: “I wasn’t just sobbing, I was howling,” says the narrator of one story before making a confession of love. “I kept hitting my own chest as if I was trying to tell my heart not to do what it was doing, to stop hurting me, my heart, and I found myself kneeling on the floor and howling and I didn’t even know why.”
But such notes are in the heart’s range, and as I read I found Sáenz’s willingness to sound them brave and bracing. One of the glories of this collection—one of the best new books I’ve read in years—is its full-throatedness, its unapologetic willingness to give voice to extremes of experience, even when those extremes challenge the tidy canons of propriety. Good art, especially good queer art, has always posed such challenges. Love, grief, hopelessness and rage wear their brightest clothes in Sáenz’s work, sharing the page with a clear-eyed acknowledgment that the world is seldom accommodating of individual desires. Love may not often win in these gorgeous stories, but it is always fierce.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. Beginning this fall, he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.