Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

By BENJAMIN ALIRE SAENZ

“The problem with my life,” says fifteeen-year-old Aristotle, called Ari, “was that it was someone else’s idea.” The “son of a man who had Vietnam living inside of him,” and nearly a generation younger than his other siblings, one of whom has been imprisoned for a mysterious crime, Ari has grown up lonely and uncomfortable in his own skin. Even his mother, a warm, candid high school teacher who knows a bit about feeling like an outsider in her own community — “I’m an educated woman,” she tells him, “That doesn’t un-Mexicanize me” — can’t seem to get him interested in spending time with other people.

But that all changes when Ari meets Dante in the public pool in El Paso, Texas in the summer of 1987. Like Ari, Dante is the son of educated Mexican-American parents (his father is a professor, his mother a therapist) who don’t quite fit any more within their own families. But while Ari often turns his discomfort to rage; Dante isn’t afraid to read poetry in public and to cry over dead birds. “He looked a little fragile — but he wasn’t,” says Ari. “He was disciplined and tough and knowledgeable and he didn’t pretend to be stupid and ordinary…. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural.”

After the summer, the two boys spend a year apart, and Ari begins to feel that his friendship with Dante might cause him more discomfort than it alleviates. But he realizes that, in order to grow up, he needs to finally get along in the company of others: “Man loneliness was much bigger than boy loneliness,” he says. “I didn’t want to live in my parents’ world and I didn’t have a world of my own.” Saenz, the author of many novels and poetry collections for both adults and teens, uses expansive language and a subtle plot to show how two boys become men by creating a world they can live in.