Domingo Martinez’s mind runs away with him. The 42-year-old Seattle author has written two memoirs, “The Boy Kings of Texas,” a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and “My Heart is a Drunken Compass” (Lyons Press, $26.95), just released this month. In an interview, he spilled out fascinating ideas, tragic stories and funny anecdotes seemingly faster than the speed of light. Somehow, he’s able to corral all the lightning in his brain into stark, haunting prose that crackles in his readers’ minds long after they are finished reading his books.
In 2012, Martinez was living on Queen Anne, managing a small print shop in Redmond when he was awakened by repeated phone calls. “My phone is just buzzing,” he recalled. “It’s like 6:30 in the morning. I’m thinking, ‘Did I make that payment on the car? Wow, these [bill collectors] are calling earlier and earlier.’ Then I realize it’s coming from New York. I don’t know anybody in New York. And it’s my publisher and my agents, and they are all saying, ‘We made it to the National Book Awards’. I ask, ‘What are the National Book Awards?’” When he understood, he freaked out. “I was really worried that my little tiny book would be up there beside Patti Smith’s [‘Just Kids,’ winner of 2010’s National Book Award for Nonfiction].”
Martinez’s naivete about the importance of the National Book Awards to literary success was just one measure of the almost complete isolation in which he wrote his first memoir. It took him nearly 20 years to write “The Boy Kings of Texas.” Often he wrote in Seattle’s dive bars, filling up moleskin notebooks with stories about growing up in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, in a family dominated by a violent, drunken father who expected Martinez to repeat his elders’ cycle of poverty, alcoholism, early fatherhood and machismo. Instead Martinez made his way to Seattle, worked as a graphic designer at, among other places, The Stranger and Seattle Weekly. In 1997, he served on the board of Real Change. And, in his personal life, he wrote long emails and letters attempting to woo women with his words. His efforts never helped his love life, but when he combined them with the material in the moleskin notebooks, he produced a work of art.
And when the world responded to it, Martinez wasn’t really ready.
“At that point,” he said, “I hadn’t been to Brownsville in 10 years. I had completely divorced myself from that self, from that area. So now I have people asking me to write essays about the border crossings and the [Texas-Mexico Border] Wall. I’d never even seen that wall. It was really interesting because when I did go [see the wall] for the first time, they had put that wall right straight through my memories.
“It’s like a [Stanley] Kubrick film. It’s just this dense, black metal thing, and it was creepy. It was the militarization of Brownsville, Texas. And my West Coast sensibilities are such that when I see a man standing with a machine gun, I get nervous. I tend to turn around and walk in the other direction.”
At the same time, Martinez realized that he had given voice to a new generation of people like him.
“I wanted to change the mold of Latino literature because I came from another generation that wasn’t accustomed to the [novelist] Sandra Cisneros’ [style of writing]: The whole intermingling of English and Spanish, where they really emphasize the Spanish. That’s not who we were. That didn’t ring true for me and my generation. We would move back and forth interchangeably between Spanish and English, but we wouldn’t change our accent too much,” he said.
Martinez also observed that older Latino writers, like Cisneros, had a great reverence for their elders.
“The previous generation said, ‘We hold up our elders.’ [My generation] saw through everybody. My family did bad things to survive. That’s what we learned. And I still get moments of that, I still get flashes of it. I hear a voice saying, ‘Do I really have to pay these taxes?’ ‘Is there a way we could get around this?’ Then comes the other voice, the new Americanized Domingo. ‘You’ve got to do this now. You’ve got to do that now. Did you pay your light bill?’”
In addition, Martinez didn’t feel that the border’s singularity was captured by previous writers.
“Every time people write stories about the border it’s always about mi abuelito [my grandpa] came in on the donkey. It’s how America is comfortable seeing Mexicans. What no one really understands is that the border is in itself its own different area. It is so particular in this quality that it is very characteristic of America. Wherever you’re from, you’re no longer a part of there and then you don’t feel like you’re very much a part of America, either. So you have this dichotomy in your identity, because if I go to Mexico, they’re not going to consider me a Mexican.
“I’ve also been traveling back to Texas quite a bit and doing speeches at universities to kids who are basically going through this same inner conflict that I’ve experienced but without a language or an ability to articulate it to themselves. I’m able to speak to these kids who ask, ‘You mean I can go to the movie theater and order nachos?’ [I say,] ‘You can do that, kiddo,’” he said.
Going back to Brownsville has also meant that Martinez has spent more time with his family. He particularly worries about his brother, Derek, 14 years his junior. In 2007, Derek, then a student at the University of Texas at Austin, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he collapsed from drinking. At the hospital, “[t]he neurologist had to wait to perform the surgery because Derek’s blood alcohol level — on its own — would have killed most people,” Martinez writes in “My Heart is a Drunken Compass.” Derek’s catastrophic incident, its antecedents and its ramifications make up the first part of the new memoir.
“Derek is an affable nitwit; he’s an incredibly likable guy. Yes, he’s got that brain injury; he’s got a hole in his head; and the problem is that he’s so damned likable that people say, ‘Come here,’ and he’ll never turn down a drink. He’s an addict of opportunity. If it’s there and if you share it with him, he’s going to do it with you,” Martinez said.
He added, “I feel I’ve enfeebled him. We’re 14 years apart. He was 3 years old when I was 17. At that time, it was basically me, him and Mom. Mom was working all the time, so I was taking care of him quite a bit. So I had this great relationship with this kid. I taught him how to cook. Well, I taught him how to open a can of soup and turn off the stove when you’re done. I feel very bonded to that kid. When I left Brownsville, I left Derek. I felt like I was abandoning my own kid. That’s the tension in [“My Heart is a Drunken Compass”], being in Seattle all this time with Derek being in Texas. I have this tremendous amount of guilt that I left him in his time of need. Of course, you know, I’m Catholic and ‘Jesus died for your sins.’”
In 2009, Martinez’s guilt and self-hatred found another outlet when Steph, his former fiancée, also suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for months. During an epileptic seizure, Steph drove her Jeep Cherokee “over the side of an overpass” and ended up in Harborview Medical Center with 108 bone fractures. While Steph and Martinez were no longer living together and had canceled their marriage plans, they were still enmeshed in one another’s lives. Over the next several months, first while Steph was in a coma and then during her slow recovery, Martinez visited her in Harborview nearly every day. Steph’s accident, her recovery and Martinez’s response make up the second and third parts of “My Heart is a Drunken Compass.”
“The traumatic event happens to one person but it changes everyone in their immediate circle. I didn’t want to take the tragedy from Steph. This tragedy is very much hers, but it affects everyone. What I felt was a transformation from being a happy-go-lucky guy going through life without realizing how life could really just turn. It’s the [writer] Joan Didion’s thing where all of life changes in an instant. It’s being able to operate on a minute-to-minute basis knowing that at any second all of your life or the lives of the people you love could be inalterably changed, but you have to keep operating. You can’t just lock yourself in your apartment — like I sometimes do. You have to get out there and walk down to the market, buy your groceries and walk back home and just trust in the world that you’re going to make it to the next step and the next step and the next step. I was terrified,” he said.
Eventually Martinez collapsed emotionally. He attempted suicide and wound up in the hospital himself. He recovered quickly and resumed his daily visits to Steph. A year passed before Steph was ready to leave the hospital and become independent. At that point, Martinez found his own way back into the world.
“It’s just being able to minimize fear to the point where it just sits there,” he said. “And the next time something happens, you’re just more prepared for it. That’s what I told my family, ‘I’ve gone through it. Just understand that during the next emergency, I’m going to be much more capable of dealing with it, because I’ve already had my anxiety.’ ”
This article won Second Place in the Editorial/Commentary category at the 2014 Washington Press Association Awards