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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: Benjamin Alire Sáenz novel follows climb out of despair


Benjamin Alire Sáenz novel follows climb out of despair

El Paso Times Staff

"I've lived eighteen years in the season of sadness where the weather never changed," says the protagonist, from the deep well of his isolation, in "Last Night I Sang to the Monster" (Cinco Puntos Press, $19.95 hardcover), Benjamin Alire Sáenz's most devastating and exquisite novel to date.

Zachariah Johnson Gonzalez -- Zach to his friends -- is the son of an alcoholic father and a manic-depressive mother "who was allergic to the sky," and with an older brother whose drug-induced rages inflicted fear and violence on the family. So it was only a matter of time before Zach ended up in a rehabilitation facility after a near-fatal drinking binge -- his way of numbing the pain of witnessing the ills of his loved ones.

In "trauma camp," he's the therapist's most challenging patient. The path toward healing begins with the exploration of the past. Zach doesn't like to remember: "Remembering makes me feel things. I don't like feelings things." Instead, his sessions are hostile dialogues of evasion and disassociation from his emotions.

But weeks into such programs, even the toughest case can crack, and Zach slowly begins to realize that "maybe living is supposed to be more than survival."

The strength to overcoming his nightmares is fueled by interactions with his roommates in Cabin 9: Sharkey, a 27-year-old drug addict and smart aleck with a conflicted relationship with his parents, and Rafael, a 53-year-old alcoholic and child-abuse survivor coping with the loss of his

son. These men become Zach's surrogate family, helping him reconnect with such sentiments as affection, sympathy and love.

But the greatest challenge is yet to come: taming the monster that pushes him toward the self-destructive act of forgetting. If he is to move on to the next stage of recovery, Zach must come to terms with a devastating personal tragedy that left him "dead even though I was still alive."

Sáenz, a writer of great skill and precision, reels the reader into a place of such personal sorrow without slipping into tearjerking sentimentality, though it's difficult not to respond with tears to Zach's hard-won rehabilitation.

The testimonies that come out during Zach's group therapy sessions are relentless but convincing portraits of humanity at its most vulnerable, and they prepare both the reader and Zach for the shocking revelations at the conclusion of his stay.

And to allow the dark prose further flecks of light, Sáenz has Zach collect the sensory details of his smallest pleasures -- the therapist's green eyes, his high-school teacher's trumpet-playing, Rafael's lullaby -- a happiness-building exercise that echoes the plot's shift from anxiety and grief to poetic justice and victory song.

"Last Night I Sang to the Monster," with its impressive characterizations and heart-wrenching storyline, is the must-read novel of the year.

Rigoberto González is an award-winning writer living in New York City. His Web site is www.rigobertogonzalez.com, and he may be reached at Rigoberto70@aol.com.

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