A Review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Cinco Puntos Press, 2009
By REBECCA, March 30, 2012
Zach Gonzalez: Smart, sensitive teenager who is afraid to feel, with good reason
Rafael de la Tierra: Zach’s roommate and surrogate father
Sharkey: Zach and Rafael’s roommate; not sold on the therapy process
Adam: Benevolent therapist in rehab
Amit: Zach and Rafael’s roommate after Sharkey
Mr. Garcia: Inspirational English teacher from before rehab
Santiago: Zach’s vicious older brother
When Zach wakes up in rehab he has no idea how he got there . . . or where he was before. How can he figure it out when he doesn’t want to remember?
When Last Night I Sang To the Monster begins, Zach has a plan: he’s going to get A’s in school, get a scholarship, and “go to Stanford or Harvard or Princeton or Georgetown or one of those famous schools where all the students were very smart. And very happy. And very alive” (15). But something goes wrong, and Zach ends up in rehab, frozen and dissociated. The novel follows what happens in between. Zach admits that he’s an alcoholic, like his father, but even while he relates pieces of his story to Adam and his therapy group he shies away from the incident that landed him in rehab like a sore tooth. Last Night I Sang To the Monster, then, is a slow excavation of Zach’s story as his sobriety and sense of safety let him see clearly.
As you might imagine, this book being set in a rehab facility, Last Night I Sang To the Monster doesn’t present a rosy view of the world. Each character has a difficult story to tell. Still, as you might also imagine, in a novel dedicated to characters trying to improve their lives, hope abounds. More important, though, is that Sáenz’s prose is stunning. So, in the prose, as well as in the story itself, is a sense that art—especially using art to communicate—is still worth something.
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
Sáenz tried to fold back the layers of Zach and display, finally, the heart of the character. Zach says:
“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.
I keep seeing a newspaper being tossed around in the wind. And then a strong gust comes along and the newspaper is thrown against a barbed wire fence and it gets ripped to shreds in an instant. That’s how I feel. I think God is the wind. It’s all like a game to him. Him. God. And it’s all pretty much random. He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts. When it came to my turn, he wrote sad. I don’t like God very much. Apparently, he doesn’t like me very much either” (11).
Because Zach narrates the novel, the audience is as in the dark about what brought Zach to rehab as he is. This builds the tension really subtly so that as readers we put the pieces back together with Zach. In this way, it is a kind of mystery that we try and solve along with him, each piece of backstory, dream, and desire providing one more clue. Bit by bit, without the warmth of alcohol, Zach is forced to acknowledge the warm feelings he is developing for others: his therapist, Adam, his roommate, Rafael, and the members of his therapy group.
Unusual for many young adult novels, Zach is the only teenager in Last Night I Sang To the Monster. Because he is in rehab, there are characters of all ages, so the novel doesn’t fall into any of the romantic stereotypes of rehab sometimes found in post-The Bell Jar novels. In fact, realistically, nothing really happens. It’s a true testament to Sáenz’s prose and pacing, then, that Last Night I Sang To the Monster absolutely captivated me from the epigraph—a (misquoted) line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing-Tree”—to the final paragraph.
I’m kind of a sucker for novels written by poets (which Sáenz is)—the prose is so controlled and intentional. I was reading Last Night I Sang To the Monster on the train coming home and there were passages that made me very glad that I was sitting along and wearing sunglasses, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t, I mean: I cried.
With or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011). Like Last Night I Sang To The Monster, With or Without You is great contemporary realism that features a sensitive male protagonist placed in dangerous situations. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but you can read the full review here!
Under the Wolf, Under the Dog by Adam Rapp (2004). Or, really, any of Adam Rapp’s novels. Steve Nugent is in a “facility” for addicts and suicidals, but he doesn’t really belong in either group. Like Zach, he needs to reconstruct how he ended up here in order to move forward.
Procured from: the library