For Award-Winning Author, The Border Is More Than A Headline
In the Mexican border city of Juárez a few blocks south of the international bridge, sits an old Prohibition-era bar. It's called the Kentucky Club, a legendary spot beloved by border dwellers on both sides.
The Kentucky Club is also the place that links together a collection of short stories by an American author who won this year's prestigious PEN/Faulkner award.
The Santa Fe bridge that links El Paso, Texas to Ciudad Juárez is hauntingly still on a recent Saturday night. What used to be a border crossing flush with life is now, after years of brutal drug violence, like a graveyard. It's not the border that author Benjamin Alire Sáenz recalls from his high school days.
"We'd all pile in a couple of cars. There'd be like ten of us and we'd come over to Juárez," he said. "And we'd go to all these places like The Cave, The Club Hawaii, The Kentucky Club. And we would just have a good time and laugh."
Ciudad Juárez is a sprawling city of more than a million people. It lies directly south of El Paso like a muddled reflection off an arid Rio Grande. This home for Sáenz. The border is more than just a place in his stories, it's a silent but ever-present character. His latest book, "Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club," introduces readers to famous a Juárez bar.
Unlike the border bridge, the Kentucky Club was pulsing with energy. With a declining murder rate in Juárez, locals are going out again. Most Americans, though, are still reluctant to return.
From “Chasing the Dragon” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
I have a black and white photograph of my mother and father sitting in a Juarez bar. My father looks like he’s drunk, his white shirt wrinkled, his striped tie loosened, his black hair tussled. It amazes me, that even in a drunken state, my father retains a charm that could be captured by a camera. My mother, an ethereal beauty with piercing green eyes, is looking away, staring off into the distance. Neither of them appears to be happy.
My parents—in and out of photographs—were an arresting couple. People envied them. They walked into rooms and turned heads. I suspect they enjoyed their public performances. The minute they stepped out into the public eye, they were celebrities, the center of the spinning world. Their physical beauty aside, they lived tortured, miserable lives.
My parents were theatre. My sister Carmen and I were their audience. Even the photograph of the two of them that I am addicted to studying seems like a still from a movie.
Behind the grand oak bar, a one-eyed bartender in a white collared shirt stirred up the Kentucky Club's signature drink.
Locals like to brag that this is the birthplace of the margarita, a disputed claim at best. This place has been around since 1920, when Prohibition drew in throngs of thirsty Americans. Saenz explained why he picked the Kentucky Club for his book.
"It's the knot that has for generations tied the two cities of Juárez and El Paso together," he said. "Because it's still here. Most of those places are gone."
His book is not about the Kentucky Club. It’s just the place where his characters like to end up. The book is about the lives of people on the border, those who slide between two countries as if they were two neighborhoods. There are love stories, stories about drug addiction, coming of age, and identity. Many are based on everyday realities.
"Imagine someone in El Paso loving someone in Juárez and imagine that person getting killed. That happens, that's happened. So I just put it in a story," he said.
Saenz's publisher is a small family-run company in El Paso, called Cinco Puntos Press. They take pride in publishing authors with diverse backgrounds whose work often carries a political message. John Byrd runs the shop with his parents.
"I think too often news and information about the border is generated away from the border, and so one of the things we're hoping to do is to allow the border to speak for itself," Byrd said.
Saenz grew up on the border. He was born at his grandmother's home in rural New Mexico. At age 26 he became a Catholic priest, a calling that lasted only three years. After that, his future belonged to writing. His 19 works include poetry, children's books and novels.
A.J. Verdelle is a fellow writer and a judge for PEN/Faulkner Foundation. She and two other judges chose Saenz's book out of 351 entries.
From “Sometimes the Rain” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The Kentucky Club wasn’t far. When we walked in, the place was half full but there were two seats at the bar so we claimed them as ours. We sat next to a couple of drunk gringos who were talking about the night Elizabeth Taylor walked in after getting a quickie divorce from Eddie Fisher. “She bought everybody in the joint a drink.” They talked about that night as if they’d both been there. Brian gave me a nudge with his knee and we smiled and ordered cuba libres. I liked the taste of the rum and the coke and liked the feel of sitting at a bar with Brian.
“So this is what it’s like,” I said.
“What?” Brian said.
“To feel like a man.”
Brian laughed. “I think it takes a little more than that.”
I nodded. We had another drink. Then another. Then another.
Then Brian looked at me and said, “I could sit here forever.”
"I felt like I was reading about the United States and Mexico," she said. "I felt like I was reading about permanence and transference that is crossing back and forth. There's a tremendous tension of duality in this book, and it definitely made the book better and more complex."
Back at the Kentucky Club, Saenz takes a long drag from a cigarette. He stands in a blue collared shirt with a black ketchup-stained vest. As William Faulkner wrote about the American south, he says, he writes about the American border.
"We're people who feel and breathe and die and suffer and hope for salvation and yearn for love. We're not just a newspaper headline," he said.
Saenz and four finalists for the PEN/Faulkner award will be honored at a public ceremony May 4 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.