#198: THE RETURN OF ARISTOTLE AND DANTE. In 2012, Benjamin Alire Saenz published Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a gay-themed YA romance marked by a startling economy of language and two entirely winning protagonists. The newly-published (2021) sequel is called Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World, which takes off immediately from where the first book ended. Aristotle’s confusion and reluctance have been settled (to some degree), love has been declared and returned. So—where do we go from here? It is the nineteen-eighties, with AIDS creeping into people’s minds, and homophobia is still the norm—though not, fortunately, with either boy’s parents, who are not the disapproving manikins of so much YA fiction--and Waters of the World is the cartography (the analogy Aristotle uses himself) of both boys’ attempts to find their place to be—among friends, among teachers, among family—as they acknowledge the looming disruption of finishing high school and the prospect of separation as they pursue education and career. There are other ghosts to lay—Aristotle’s brother is in jail for having killed a transgender prostitute, and his father is only slowly emerging from a post-Vietnam PTSD.
Part of what is effective here is that the issues the book deals with do not appear as abstractions, but as embodiment in convincing characters—no ideas but in people and dialogue. What is also marvelous and surprising, perhaps especially to a reader who grew up in the emotional silences of New England, is the clear-minded emotional articulacy, even the loquacity of the characters. I raised my eyebrow at this more than once—is this, I ask in ignorance, an aspect of Mexican or Mexican-American culture?—but it is part of the map that Saenz himself is delineating: in The Waters of the World we are seeing the cartography of a world in which someone like Aristotle can flower. Not only did I buy it while I was reading it, I found myself moved, time after time, by the generosity and kindness of Aristotle’s elders, and the safe space it provides for their children. One of the oft-unacknowledged sources of emotion in a work of literature is to see people expressing love and admiration for each other—saying it out loud. We so seldom hear these words spoken that, with the quick, easy purity of Saenz’s writing, it’s like the opposite of a sucker-punch. It’s like a gift, with a kick to it. And Saenz shows his young audience enormous respect: the language is swift and simple, and while he observes the conventions of YA fiction—no explicit sex, for one—we never see him looking over the shoulders of his younger readers and winking at the adults.
By the end, Aristotle has gone through two unforeseen losses: one a liberation, the other a genuine and terrible sadness. Dante and Aristotle’s dialogue bounces with joy and wit and with unexpectedly complicated harmonies; they also get on without those tiresome invented spats writers always had to throw between Fred and Ginger. Their final resolution—with the unexpected and moving help of Eugene Delacroix, of all people, and a precisely timed quote from the earlier book—never quite allows us to forget the grip and fire of the time these two young men have had to get through, and which Saenz conveys with an immediacy that leaves you a little winded. It’s called adolescence. It's amazing any of us make it out alive.