The Town of Babylon

  • By Alejandro Varela
  • Astra House
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Carr Harkrader
  • April 2, 2023

The suburbs are nicer when you’re white.

The Town of Babylon
The Town of Babylon, Alejandro Varela’s debut novel, is set in a fictional suburb of what could be New York, Philadelphia, or some other large city. Like televangelism or cowboy movies, the suburb is one of America’s distinctive cultural offerings to the world. Yes, many places have suburbs, but few exemplify being suburban quite like America.

Ronald Reagan often expressed a wish to show Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev the United States from above, in a helicopter or plane; he would point out the neat but sprawling suburbs with big homes, cars in the driveways, and “little backyard swimming pools.” This, he fantasized, would help end the Cold War. Those mortgages, and our relations with Russia, haven’t been the same ever since.

Andrés, the protagonist of the novel, would hate my reference to Reagan. A professor of public health in the city, he’s back in Babylon to support his sick father and caretaker mother. His parents, immigrants from El Salvador and Colombia, settled in the town to raise Andrés and his older brother, Henry.

As an adult, Andrés moved away from the ‘burbs, and his disdain for suburban life is apparent from the beginning of the book. Like someone who intentionally lives without air conditioning, his righteousness fans his judgmental personality:

“I don’t think I’m intrinsically better or more important than anyone else, but I admit that I consider myself…something. Correct, maybe.”

Against his better judgment, Andrés decides to attend his 20-year high school reunion. “How does one dress for the past,” he asks as he gets ready to go to the strip-mall Italian restaurant hosting the event. It’s in these early chapters, focused on the reunion, that Varela dissects the suburban experience like an experienced butcher picking apart a carcass.

As the child of brown-skinned immigrants, Andrés talks about the feeling of “everyone leering at us with abandon, the sort of audaciousness I’ve only ever experienced in after-hours sex clubs and the suburbs.” The sketches of parents Álvaro and Rosario and of Andrés’ brother give Varela the range to explore the psychological and physical tolls of suburban life. These people, after all, are seeking uneasy sanctuary in a community and country wary of their presence. Rosario “counted more birds than humans” on their block; she and her husband’s years in Babylon involve striving and surviving in a place devoid of extended family or a meaningful social circle.

This alienation is not like that of Cheever’s swimming-pool seeker; Álvaro and Rosario don’t find the almost spiritual solace that Reagan conjured up in the lily-white neighborhoods of the 1980s. In Varela’s portrayal, the suburbs apply a vise grip of exhaustion and racism, suffocating its residents on stolen land. 

Cracks in the novel’s foundation start to show the further we get from the reunion. Andrés is frenetically neurotic, a state reflected in the structure of the book. There’s first-person narration, and then third-person zoom-outs. There are subplots aplenty: a former classmate is suspected of a homophobic murder, and another, Simone, is in a psychiatric hospital. Then there are the flashbacks to Andrés’ parents’ arrival in America and to his brother’s sudden death, and then a jump to Simone’s parents and the discrimination they faced as a Black couple trying to buy a house in the ‘burbs. 

It all starts to feel like too many books jammed into one backpack. It doesn’t help that, every few pages, when he’s faced with personal challenges he doesn’t want to deal with, Andrés goes off on long monologues about global concerns. It’s a sly device at first; used repeatedly, it tests the reader’s patience. Like Andrés, author Varela was trained in public health, and the novel paints Babylon as a health hazard that often condemns its residents to a cycle of disease, decay, and death. It reads in places like an imaginative public-health textbook. But fiction by disquisition gets tedious after a while.

The main storyline — Andrés’ complicated relationship with an old flame, Jeremey — gets bogged down by these digressions. When the two reconnect at the reunion, Andrés is forced to contemplate what broke them up in the first place. Theirs was a complicated relationship exploring first love, the boundaries of race and class, sexuality, and the challenge of adolescent boys trying to grasp something beyond themselves for the first time. This section, like his examination of family, brings out Varela’s best writing. I look forward to more of it — next time, with a shorter commute. 

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2022.]

Carr Harkrader is a writer and book critic in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @CarrHark.

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