Homecoming Queen: Alejandro Varela's 'The Town of Babylon'

by Jim Piechota

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday April 26, 2022

Author Alejandro Varela
Author Alejandro Varela  

The problematic return of a gay Latinx man to his hometown after decades away is supreme fodder for an engrossing and melodramatic novel, and debut author Alejandro Varela seems more than happy to seize the moment.

His protagonist in "The Town of Babylon" is Andres, a public health professor, who left his birthplace of Babylon (exact location not specified) 20 years prior for the safer higher ground of the big city. He has reluctantly planned an unceremonious return home to see his father, who is home convalescing after intestinal surgery. The timing couldn't be better to get away for a bit, since his marriage to his husband has seen better days, thanks to an ordeal back home involving infidelity.

Once back in the ever-familiar land of Babylon, Andres is reunited with friends and classmates from his past, including processing some closure from his older brother Henry's emotionally crushing death.

Adding fuel to this fiery homecoming tale is Andres' 20th high school class reunion, which just happens to be taking place during his visit. After much trepidation and swallowing the dread that caused him to leave town in the first place, Andres decides to bite the bullet and attend the gathering. The reunion is a swarm of former classmates who, as happens in reality, seem frozen in time and thirsty for some semblance of a life.

They appear, to those who have moved away, to have never achieved any modicum of emotional growth or visible happiness, yet have aged onward nonetheless.

Among the more uncomfortable scenarios he contends with at the reunion is meeting up with Jeremy, a former best buddy and high school flame who still looks handsome and soon becomes more than just a temptation for the emotionally fraught Andres.

Unfinished business remains between the two since their high school dalliance was cut short "with the force and expediency of a well-timed blade."

Also at the reunion are less-savory classmates like Paul, a small-framed and insecure nugget of man-child who'd overcompensated for his stature with a caustic, mean-spirited personality that tended to find Andres in its crosshairs. Of course, Paul is now an infuriatingly pious Christian minister at one of Babylon's tacky storefront churches and, to Andres, responsible for the homophobic slaughter of a local gay man at the local gay cruising area years prior.

Backstory material — sometimes necessary, sometimes excessively expository — duly fill in the histories of most of Varela's engrossing characters and flesh out a community rife with small-mindedness, loss, jealousy, hate, and the kind of still-smoldering missed opportunities for stealth affection that can sink even a fractured gay marriage.

It is indeed the messy past that Andres struggles to move through, but, as in life, in order to truly move forward, dealing with what got you to your present in the first place must be subdued.

This is a busy, heavily populated novel that feels overwrought in spots where Varela has added somewhat expository social and cultural criticisms or stuffed characters into scenes that didn't need additional voices or drama.

Overall, this is a dynamic and resonant debut that demonstrates lots of potential for the New York-based author whose work has prolifically appeared in a wide variety of literary journals. Hopefully, there will be more books to come from the talented Varela.

'The Town of Babylon' by Alejandro Varela; Astra House, $27

www.penguinrandomhouse.com alejandrovarela.work

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