Vibrant 'Club' Links Two Countries In Award-Winning Book

Apr 30, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2013 2:27 pm

On a Saturday night, the bridge that links downtown El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico is hauntingly still. Once, this was a border crossing flush with life; now, after years of brutal drug violence, it's like a graveyard. It's certainly not the border that American author Benjamin Alire Saenz recalls from his high school days.

"We'd all pile in a couple of cars. There'd be like 10 of us and we'd come over to Juarez," Saenz remembers. "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 Juarez is a sprawling city of more than a million people. It lies directly south of El Paso, like a muddled reflection off a mostly arid Rio Grande. For Saenz, this meeting place between the U.S. and Mexico is home. The border is more than just a place in his stories; it's a silent but ever-present character.

A few blocks south of that international bridge sits an old prohibition-era bar, a legendary spot that links together Saenz's latest collection of short stories. The book, which won this year's prestigious PEN/Faulkner award, is called Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. This a Saturday night, and unlike the deadly quiet border bridge, the real-life Kentucky Club is pulsing with energy. With a declining murder rate in Juarez, locals are going out again. Most Americans, though, are still reluctant to return.

Behind the grand oak bar, a one-eyed bartender in a white collared shirt stirs up the Kentucky Club's signature drink. Locals like to brag that this is the birthplace of the margarita, a disputed claim at best. But it's certainly true that this place has history; it's been around since 1920, when prohibition drew in throngs of thirsty Americans.

"It's the knot that has for generations tied the two cities of Juarez and El Paso together," Saenz says, explaining why he chose the club as his book's unifying thread. "That's why this place. Because it's still here ... "

His book isn't really about the Kentucky Club. That'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 stories about love, drug addiction, coming of age and identity.

"Imagine someone in El Paso loving someone in Juarez and imagine that person getting killed," Saenz says. "That happens — that's happened. So I just put it in a story."

Saenz's publisher is a small, family-run company in El Paso called Cinco Puntos Press. It takes pride in publishing authors with diverse backgrounds, whose work often carries a political message. John Byrd, who runs the shop with his parents, explains their mission like this: "I think that too often news and information about the border is generated away from the border. And so what we're really hoping to do is to allow the border to speak for itself."

Saenz grew up on the border. At 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, many of which are set at the border. A.J. Verdelle, a writer and a judge for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, says Saenz's treatment of life in two countries was one of the reasons his book stood out among the 351 entries.

"I felt like I was reading about the United States and Mexico. I felt like I was reading about permanence and transference — that is, crossing back and forth," Verdelle says. "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. As William Faulkner, the namesake of the prize he just won, wrote about the American South, Saenz 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," he says. "We're not just a newspaper headline."

This story came from Fronteras, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border and changing demographics.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, a few blocks into Mexico sits an old Prohibition era bar. It's called the Kentucky Club and it's a legendary spot that's long attracted customers from both sides of the border. It's also the place that weaves together a collection of short stories by the American writer who won this year's prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award.

Monica Ortiz Uribe, of member station KJZZ, joined the author on a trip to his favorite bar.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: We're walking across the bridge that links downtown El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. For a Saturday night it's hauntingly still. 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 author Benjamin Alire Sáenz recalls from his high school days.

ALIRE SAENZ: We'd all pile in a couple of cars. There'd be like 10 of us and we'd come over to Juarez, 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.

URIBE: Ciudad Juarez is a sprawling city of more than a million people. It lies directly south of El Paso like a muddled reflection off a mostly arid Rio Grande River. This is home for Saenz. 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 a famous a Juarez bar, which is our destination tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

URIBE: Unlike the border bridge, the Kentucky Club is pulsing with energy. With a declining murder rate in Juarez, locals are going out again. Most Americans, though, are still reluctant to return.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOOPING ICE CUBES AND SHAKING)

URIBE: Behind the grand oak bar, a one-eyed bartender in a white collared shirt stirs up the Kentucky Club's signature drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF STIRRING)

URIBE: 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. I ask Saenz why he picked the Kentucky Club for his book.

SAENZ: It's the knot that has for generations tied the two cities of Juarez and El Paso together. That's why this place, because it's still here.

URIBE: 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.

SAENZ: Imagine someone in El Paso loving someone in Juarez and imagine that person getting killed. That happens, that's happened. So I just put it in a story.

URIBE: 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.

JOHN BYRD: I think that too often news and information about the border is generated away from the border and so what we're hoping to do is to allow the border to speak for itself.

URIBE: Saenz grew up on the border. At 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 helped chose Saenz's book out of 351 entries.

A.J. VERDELLE: I felt like I was reading about the United States and Mexico. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING AND CROWD CHATTER)

URIBE: Back at the Kentucky Club, Saenz takes a long drag from a cigarette. As William Faulkner wrote about the American South, he says, he writes about the American border.

SAENZ: 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.

URIBE: Saenz and four finalists for the PEN/Faulkner award will be honored in May at a public ceremony in Washington, D.C.

For NPR News, I'm Mónica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso.

MONTAGNE: And that story came to us from Fronteras, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border and changing demographics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.