Nowhere is a Place: Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon

Marcos Gonsalez


For the young, a suburban upbringing must culminate in an escape—or so the trope goes. Enlightenment must be sought and found in the cities, where one’s worldly, cosmopolitan  consciousness can be cultivated. But in Alejandro Varela’s debut novel, The Town of Babylon, the suburbs become a place where the micro and the macro intermingle, where insularity is subverted.

On Varela’s fictional suburban streets, we travel both far inward, into realms within the characters’ psyches, and outward, to the sociopolitical contexts in which the lives of suburban dwellers play out. The similarly designed houses, gas-guzzling SUVs, the basement hangouts, and the predominately white occupants, with various ethnic enclaves sprinkled throughout—suburbia could easily be portrayed as a monolith, but Varela renders it a mosaic. Far from a utopia, suburbia’s faults and beauties all coexist, like anywhere else.

Andrés, the novel’s gay Salvadoran-Colombian protagonist, returns from New York City to his childhood hometown of Babylon, Long Island for his 20-year high school reunion, appropriately hosted in a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant. Faces from his suburban past prompt professorial ponderings on racial inequality, the dilemmas of first-generation children, Trump voters, and other such 21st-century concerns. All of this helps distract him from the marital problems he is having with his husband, Marco; the two are barely speaking after Andrés discovered Marco cheating on him.

While at the reunion, chugging back drinks because why not, it’s an open bar and you’re at your high-school reunion, Andrés runs into his white ex, Jeremy. Soon, he finds out that his high school best friend, Simone, is being treated for schizophrenia in the town’s psychiatric hospital, and that a homophobic acquaintance, Paul, now runs a church in the town. High-school peers never end up living the lives you expect them to. Gloomy realities like these are The Town of Babylon’s currency.

Sexual tensions fly between Andrés and the married-with-kids Jeremy during the reunion—“We’re like two adjacent earthquakes out of sync, the combined effect of which is a corrective turbulence that cancels out our anxieties”—commencing a weeks-long sexual tryst, recollections of the past, and musings on why things didn’t work out between them. Andrés grows angry when he sees Paul, remembering how Paul shamelessly gloated about beating up a gay man in the town’s cruising zone (“Steer Queer”) when they were in high school. The very much out-of-the-closet Andrés is surprised that no one is appalled by his mention of a husband. He is also amazed by how his largely white graduating class are taken aback when he asks them to refer to him as Andrés, instead of Andy, as they had called him in high school.

These moments of acute awareness of sexuality and racial difference, and the moral quandaries they ignite, permeate Andrés’ reimmersion in Babylon. “I just passed an Islamic center. I don’t know if it’s new or if I hadn’t previously bothered to notice. It’s as big and boxy and beige as everything else in this town and therefore easy to miss. Is there such a sizable Muslim population here? Are they peppered throughout the town or do they occupy a few square blocks? Or is this now the hub for all the Muslims in the area? I can’t imagine this sitting well with the other residents. Have there been protests or vandalism?” Race is everywhere, like anywhere in the U.S.—you can’t hide from it. The Town of Babylon stitches such attentiveness to identity into the fabric of its story.

Suburbia is a place brimming with contradictions, silences, and everyday intimacies, and Varela renders it a fully fleshed-out locale, if an unglamorous one. We see dreams of familial conviviality and domestic bliss crushed by racism, redlining, mental health, gay bashing, financial stress, and poor health. Immigrants from Colombia and El Salvador, Andrés’s parents, Álvaro and Rosario, who moved to Babylon from New York City early on, experience their own struggles with the pursuit of the American dream.

They live paycheck-to-paycheck (“Álvaro worked six days a week at the restaurant, and often all three shifts. Even so, it was never enough. There was always another expense.”) Parents threaten their children to do well in school—or else, they warn, they’ll be sent back to the motherland: a punishment. (“This line of rhetorical inquiry, often reserved for the most dismal of report cards, was even less likely to end in action.”) They chastise other ethnic groups for not trying hard enough. (“Neither he nor Rosario considered the long-term effects of living in this country. How it might deplete one’s resolve. How for one person to succeed, many would have to fail. How this was a country that practiced a religion of lofty expectations and unattainable goals. How dreams were just that, dreams.”).

The suburbs aren’t just a backdrop for the novel’s unfolding narrative. The suburbs and the small towns are a nexus where a diversity of lives, dreams, longings, histories, unfulfilled intimacies, and wayward aspirations tangle and clash. Varela turns the suburban basement and the sidewalk-less roads into a vibrant landscape and explores the lives of the people of color that subsist within it. The novel sidesteps the narrative constraints imposed by the closed-off nature of the suburbs by moving the reader across time and space.

To accomplish this, The Town of Babylon employs both first-person narration from Andrés’ perspective and third-person omniscient narration, which recounts more extensively the circumstances that brought some of the parents and ethnic groups to town. Simone’s parents wanted upward mobility and good schools for their daughter’s education but were immediately confronted with anti-Blackness and redlining. Paul’s father, Jerzy, an immigrant from Poland (and a frequenter of the “Steer Queer” cruising zone) is hypermasculine, and deeply abusive towards his children—providing some obvious insight into Paul’s gay-bashing inclinations.

What makes a homophobe? Is the natural trajectory for white Americans one of isolationism and a mounting fear of difference? The novel makes the case that these forces are structural, created. Babylon was “designed explicitly to be a hierarchy, where spaces above were limited and everyone below was desperate to ascend,” the narrator confides, though, “It didn’t have to be this way.” The U.S. project curates our relations to place, and one another.

The Town of Babylon is matter-of-fact and deadpan, shot through with wry and punchy monologues about structural racism, colonization, immigration, and U.S. capitalism. “The American immigrant experience,” the narrator philosophizes, “has been a mash-up of The Godfather and Toy Story set in a factory full of crisscrossing conveyor belts, where the only possible endpoints are a gilded throne or an incinerator.”

Yet the novel largely foregoes florid descriptions of this suburban Babylon; no labyrinthine prose is used to represent the inner workings of its characters’ minds. If one searches for sentimentality, then they will be disappointed. We learn that Andrés’ brother, Henry, died young from a heart attack, yet the narrator never really expounds upon that pain—it is only alluded to obliquely. What does his brother’s death feel like for Andrés, and why doesn’t he show it? If the cause is apathy on Andrés’s part, it seems to go unexamined.

Yet Varela allows Andrés’s mourning, and love, to pervade the novel as recollected detail. Grief is refracted through anecdotes and asides. Andrés’s narration recalls his experience of trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, the difficulties of being a student, how much he cared for his family and brother. When Andrés planned to ditch college in favor of shacking up with his high school sweetheart Jeremy, Henry intervened—not out of homophobia, as such scripts tend to go, but rather out of fraternal care for the well-being and success of his baby brother. Andrés would be the first to go to college, the first to make it out of town, the dreams the brothers’ parents had dreamt, but that Henry had not lived out.

Maybe what Varela poses to us is an alternate sense of mourning, where grief, and love for the lost, become a practice of everyday remembrance—an amalgamation of stories told and retold, to oneself and to others. The working class has little time to feel and grieve—perhaps this is the form that mourning must take in these conditions, conducted in the margins, in the course of whatever time we can steal for ourselves.

As he responds to tragedies both personal and global, Andrés’s reflexively self-conscious pessimism, the affect at the heart of The Town of Babylon, proves seductive: a means of coping through distance and deflection. The disaffected and anxious narrative voice (“I know my outlook is off-putting and possibly wrong”) is avowedly gay and Latinx, feverishly contemplating social reality and cultural malaise. (“I’m reminded of a research study that argued that the proliferation of SUVs in the United States was a reflection of the growing mistrust and fear in society, which was, in turn, attributable to the decades-long trend in income inequality. Larger cars, in other words, made people feel safer, not on the road per se, but from one another. Small battalions each in their own tanks.”)

Varela makes use of Andrés’s narrative voice, with its disinclination to sentimentality, as a means of interpolating sociopolitical critique into the tensions between characters. When disclosing to Simone in the psychiatric facility that his brother died from a heart attack years ago, Andrés mentions how his brother worked at the electronic store owned by a Sikh man, Uncle Ikbir. “He was sick too?” Simone asks. “No Sikh. The religion.” Andrés informs her of Sikh people, of whom she is unaware, and he tells her he has two Sikh friends. “Correction: You have three sick friends.”

Andrés finds Simone’s homophonic joke inappropriate, though he can’t help but laugh. The joke induces internal sermonizing: “It’s a lazy play on words, not a calculated attack on a religious minority. And the source, too, merits consideration: a person experiencing an acute mental health crisis; a Black woman experiencing an acute mental health crisis.” The narrator dizzyingly presses on debating inter-ethnic prejudices, how we hold someone accountable and considerations we take into account when doing so, all in the political context of post-9/11 racial violence:

“Maybe she’d want to know that Heera’s brother, who wears a head wrap, has been ridiculed, badgered, spat on, shoved, and threatened numerous times since 9/11, by Islamophobic assholes who think he’s Muslim. Ikbir, too, was forced to decorate his storefront with U.S. flags after the attacks. Or maybe this isn’t the hill to die on…Besides, Ikbir has never hired a Black person to work at the store; maybe I don’t need to feel too sorry for him.”

The narrative voice is assertive and headstrong throughout the novel, though uncertain about what precisely is the right response or condemnation to make—an angst characteristic of a modern generation inundated by social media spirals and incessantly morphing discourses of identity. Andrés concludes his polemic with no answers. As is typical of him (and perhaps of all of us), he can only throw up his hands: “Fuck, isn’t this what Europe wanted all along, to pit its colonies against one another?”   

The suburbs are born of demographic shifts. White flight from cities built the suburbs of yesterday. Today, the white return to the cities pushes immigrants and people of color out to the suburbs. The Town of Babylon foregrounds the way social differences play out between white and non-white, non-white and non-white, white and white. Despite what some of the United States population would like to believe, differences of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion cannot be elided, cannot go unseen.

Varela’s keen attentiveness to the everyday unraveling of such relations indicates his sensitivity to the conditions of life as we know it. His published short stories speak to this as well. In “Carlitos in Charge,” politics interferes in the relationship between two employees of the United Nations. The United States, in efforts to distance itself from its rival China, plans to vote against condemning El Salvador for war crimes. In response, Carlitos, a gay Salvadoran, ends the relationship with his white lover, Brad, who works for the United States embassy and appears unperturbed by the political gesture. Politics also makes or breaks relationships in another Varela short story, “Little Things Are Big Again,” which relates a gay Latinx man’s relationship with a white man he met on the subway.

“It was clear that Eric and I weren’t going to last. We shared a couple of languages, a love of Star Wars and the ambiguous political territory between queer and gay, but it wasn’t enough. Our relationship often felt like a vacation fling, characterized primarily by insurmountable geopolitical factors.” Varela deftly brings together contemporary politics and the literary; the topics of the day, along with those other matters brewing for decades or centuries, are viscerally important to his characters.

In The Town of Babylon, Andrés roves through the town of his childhood, insisting on “Andrés” instead of “Andy,” confronting former friends and their families over violent homophobic sins. He seeks recognition through reckoning. He dines, against his better judgement, at a Ruby Tuesday with a Trump-supporting former classmate who spews out “the people who take our jobs” rhetoric—Andrés’s family, of course being counted among those people. He seeks connections through political righteousness. In a world where hemispheric migrations are caused by U.S.-backed coups, dirty wars, and economic imperialism, people end up in suburbs all across the United States. Such considerations are inextricable from the social; reality draws its lines in the sand.

In the novel’s closing chapters, after Andrés has immersed himself in Babylon for months, he has a revelation: “I’m from nowhere. I’m no longer from here. I’m not from there.” This is a variation on the popular Spanish phrase used by immigrants and diasporic peoples: “No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá.” The well-known adage speaks to the curious condition of the queer, colonized, and racialized subject: nowhere is where many of us reside. For those who dwell in this nowhere, there are no returns, and no exoduses.

Nowhere is a paradox, a map of impossible geographies. It is a place cobbled together for yourself and those like you, on the streets without sidewalks, in the mom-and-pop Italian restaurant, in a high school ex’s basement. In cities, in suburbs, in the U.S., in Latin America. The nowhere is everywhere in Varela’s Babylon—its residents can’t quite seem to figure out their place in this culture and don’t quite know what they want. For them, the only way out is in. Varela’s novel is an exploration of what it means to proceed into the nowhere of these overlapping existences and identities—how they come to define one’s consciousness, knowing, and sensibility. Ultimately, it is in this nowhere that something akin to freedom may be found, if we can find it nowhere else.♦

 

 

 


Marcos Gonsalez is a queer Mexican-Puerto Rican essayist, critic, and assistant professor of literature whose research specializes on queer and trans Latinx aesthetics. Their debut book of autotheory, Pedro’s Theory, was published in 2021, and has been reviewed by The New York Times and Kirkus, and nominated for a Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize. His essays can be found or are forthcoming at The New Inquiry, Catapult, The White Review, Buzzfeed, Public Books, Literary Hub, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Marcos is currently under contract with Beacon Press to write a full-length book study on the cultural impacts of queer theory and the significance of queer Latinx theorist, José Esteban Muñoz. He is also working on a scholarly monograph on forms of queer/trans Latinx indolence and how indolence destabilizes and imagines elsewhere from colonial-capitalist logics. Gonsalez lives in New York City.

 

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