In “The Town of Babylon” (Astra House), Alejandro Varela’s debut novel, a gay, Latinx public health professor returns home for his 20th high school reunion. “It’s not my life, but I definitely borrowed from my experience,” said Varela, a gay Latinx writer whose background is in public health.
“I was excited to be able to tell these stories and to be able to give a narrative to that research,” said Varela. “The inspiration comes very much from my public health education.”
That background informed how he constructed the book’s fictional world — based on his own hometown. In portraying Babylon, the diverse working-class Long Island town where he grew up, Varela paid attention to the heart disease, drug abuse, and dwindling economic opportunities that add up to a kind of communal stress and desperation. But the book, set over a week following a 20th high school reunion, also features sex and longing, love for family and friends, and an overarching wry affection.
“My fear has always been that I’m too dogmatic, and maybe lecturing too much,” said Varela. “I try to undercut it with humor.”
To make towns like his childhood home healthier, Varela said, we need to work on the kinds of economic policies that can help diverse communities rise. “Our differences don’t have to be barriers. They only are because in our country and in our history they’ve been accompanied by socioeconomic differences,” he said.
“A few major economic policies can turn this around, things like a real minimum wage and universal health care, things that would put us on the same playing field. It really would unite us.”
Alejandro Varela will read 7 p.m. Monday in person at Brookline Booksmith.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.