Having never experienced life in a rehab center I cannot speak to the authenticity or veracity of the setting Benjamin Alire Sáenz creates in, Last Night I Sang To The Monster. 18 year-old Zach is an alcoholic who comes out of a black out in a treatment center with no memory of how he got there. I can say the novel is populated by memorable characters who are engaged in emotionally resonant relationships in a visceral setting. And in those respects, Sáenz has succeeded in crafting a very effective and moving novel. While not all aspects of the novel work perfectly, it is clear that Sáenz has sincerely and lovingly composed a work that seeks to inspire, assuage, and elucidate.
It’s a safe bet that a number of Sáenz's audience has not experienced life in a treatment center. Perhaps capitalizing on that opportunity, Sáenz manages to create a compelling setting for his characters. From describing the moribund winter to the claustrophobic details of the rooms where Zach spends most of his time, the setting contributes to novel's realism. Another interesting aspect is how it plays out more like a locked-room mystery than a tale of redemption, even though that is a major theme. Like Zach, we are slowly shown motives, decisions, and actions that ultimately land Zach in the rehab center. In that way, we (like Zach) are as much co-detectives as audience.
This male-centered novel focuses on the relationships of fathers, sons and brothers. Much of the drama unfolds through Zach's unrevealed sexuality. The ambiguity works in that it is another aspect of Zach's stunted and underdeveloped personality and helps to show him as questing for identity. Zach's rehab counselor, Adam, attempts to show Zach love, albeit with the requisite professional detachment.
Memorable characters are a major factor to the intrigue of the relationships: Zach the teen, unsure, wounded, troubled, but hardly ever unrealistic (except in some of his dialog); Rafael the consummate artist, also wounded yet wizened by decades of hard living and abuse; Adam the treatment counselor, kind, generous, never condescending and always encouraging even if his relationship necessitates clinical detachment. Thankfully, the main characters (and most of the secondary characters) feel authentic and developed. It would be easy for Sáenz (or a lesser author) to allow them to simply be caricatures and leave it at that. Even though some of the language Zack uses (and even some of the names of his friends) don't feel authentic. I don't think kids were saying "stunned out" or "wigged out" ten years ago.
Recommended reading for teens struggling with addiction, those interested in entering alcohol and drug counseling professions, mentoring, or teachers looking to make an impression. Last Night I Sang To The Monster provides hope and strength in a compelling novel built on a realistic setting, resonant relationships, and memorable characters that should encourage any reader on whatever journey they are on.