The Kentucky Club, a storied, once-elegant bar whose historic guests include Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, sits on Avenida Juarez, four blocks from the U.S. border in Mexico’s most infamous city.
The bar appears in every one of the short stories in Benjamin Alire Saenz’s book, though, contrary to the title, nothing begins or ends there. The Kentucky Club keeps Saenz’s characters just barely in Mexico, mentally, if not always physically.
Each of Saenz’s flawed young heroes lives in the U.S. but has family ties to Mexico, and each feels conflicted about abandoning his family’s homeland. For these young men, Mexico is an abusive father whom they love (and hate), and whom they move away from reluctantly and only out of mortal fear.
It’s an intense, nuanced metaphor—and it makes a great spine for a short story. The problem here is that Saenz makes it the spine of every story. Every story centers around a young man who doesn’t need to live in Mexico, but can’t bring himself to leave the country behind. Every story features an abusive father—not always the hero’s, but usually close by—and a son’s complicated quest to get away, and to find a more healthy kind of love.
These stories share so many similarities that they begin to run together, and Saenz’s style only exacerbates the problem. The author describes a protagonist’s tryst with a new girl:
“God, we did everything together that night. She wasn’t really a girl. She was a woman, much older than me. She had some real experience behind her and I learned more than a few tricks that night. Not that I hadn’t imagined them.’’
That passage reveals nothing interesting or unique about the character. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, unfortunately, overflows with these generalizations, so Saenz’s central metaphor never comes to life through his characters.
The metaphor is a fascinating idea. But a story collection needs more than one lofty metaphor (and one past-its-prime bar) to work.
Nico Vreeland lives and writes in Boston. He reviews books for ChamberFour.com.