2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas

November 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

This fight had been city versus farm, and the city had repeatedly conned its way out of a sound beating at the hands of the farm.

Dennis’s mother had called Dad, had explained what happened, and Dad said he would be right over.  Since both Dan and I have been the victims of Dad’s explosive and illogical temper, we both expect and dread the further punishment headed our way, when he gets there.  I think he’ll have a fit over Dan losing the contact lenses, for not winning decisively, for the potential trouble from the school, the cops, anything that would occur to Dad, but it doesn’t happen.

Dad is uncharacteristically understanding, comforting even, and he and Richard had dropped all they were doing that afternoon and drove to Dennis’s to pick Dan up and take him to the emergency room.

They x-ray his nose (no fracture) and his wrist (hairline fracture) and his thumb (clearly fractured).  They they take Dan to dinner and buy him a beer.

Dan had fought, and survived, like a man.  He was in the club.  The club that Dad and Richard had never been able to enter.  Maybe make deliveries there, through the tradesman’s entrance, but certainly never enter through the front door. (p. 178)

Machismo.  This untranslatable word contains stories within it.  Stories of pride, sure, but also stories of deep, raw hurt that threatens to burst its dams and spill over into the lives surrounding it.  It is a code, a way of life, yet so little of it could be defined precisely.  One either had machismo or not; there was no middle ground.  One bound by it could find himself doing the illogical for reasons of honor…and other things.  There is a sense of tragedy in the word, ma-chis-mo, that can make a grown man cry or stiffen up and become like stone.

Domingo Martinez’s debut book, the memoir The Boy Kings of Texas is as poignant as the rancheros and corrídos of singers such as José Alfredo Jiménez, whose “El Rey” (“The King”) Martinez views as a key to unlocking the machismo code and from which he derived the inspiration for his memoir of his time growing up in Brownsville, Texas during the 1970s and 1980s and what led him and his older brother Dan to flee to Seattle by the early 1990s.  The Boy Kings of Texas is a complicated, complex affair, reading as a love/hate letter to a family bound by machismo.

The Boy Kings of Texas is roughly in chronological order, although key events are sometimes narrated years or even decades after other events narrated in prior chapters.  Martinez sets out to describe the fractious lives that he, his older brother, their three younger sisters, and occasionally his youngest brother live in a barrio on the outskirts of Brownsville with their parents, paternal grandmother, and their stepuncle, Richard.  Told more in a looping, thematic fashion, similar to what a patient might relate to his therapist, the events in The Boy Kings of Texas revolve around the ways that the Martinez family members cope with their situations.

Race certainly plays a role in the book.  The Martinezes are descended from a largely criollo background and their fairish skin allows members of the family, particular the three sisters (the three Mimis, as they were nicknamed) to pass as white, especially after they refused to wear anything but the most fashionable clothes possible and after they dyed their hair blonde.  The older brother, Dan, who is 18 months older than Domingo (the fifth out of six), is a complex soul and Domingo’s recollections show this through his recounting of the fights Dan would get into, often for Domingo’s sake (even if Domingo rarely asked for help and usually felt ashamed when family members would intervene), usually over matters of race or ethnic slurs thrown at the more bookish Domingo.  In passages such as the one quoted above, Martinez reveals a lot of the family dynamics and how machismo governs them:  the fight itself, the way in which it ended (with a tragic end a few months later for the other participant), the lyrical description of how their dad, Domingo Sr. (Domingo was called “Yunior” or “June” by the family) , and their step-uncle, Richard, long for the sort of acceptance that comes to Dan in the aftermath of this brutal fight.

Violence looms large in The Boy Kings of Texas.  Domingo finds it both abhorrent and fascinating.  He is not the fighter his brother is, he sometimes tries to shrink back from the violent demands that machismo puts on the boys of his barrio, but he is again and again entrapped within its web.  Casual descriptions of his father beating on his mother, brother, and self are not meant to downplay the significance of his father’s actions, but instead are part and parcel of what drives this lonely “loser” of a man (as much in how he sees himself as how his family views him) to infidelities, inappropriate sexual talk with Domingo (the scene where he worries that his wife might have AIDS due to his screwing around and yet he is not the one who wants to know the result) is pitifully funny.  There’s such a sadness in Domingo’s prose whenever he writes about his father that it is obvious that there is much more to him than he is ready to admit; after all, openness about familial feelings don’t usually mesh well with machismo.

There is also a lot of humor within these scenes, from the beer sharing, the pot smuggling, Domingo’s first sexual experience, awkward dates, etc.  These humorous anecdotes leaven the narrative, relieving the depressing sense of fatality that sometimes threatened to overwhelm the narrative.  Martinez has excellent comedic timing, with the humor never feeling forced nor does it ever detract from the weightier issues being described.  But even more impressive than his melding of comedic scenes with the more brutal ones is his honesty.  There is never the sense that he covers up his feelings or reactions to events.  He does not see himself as a hero, but rather as a survivor.  This veracious portrayal makes for a fascinating read of not just a typical family, but of a Latino family caught between the dual worlds of Mexico and the United States, of white and brown, of aspiring to advance and trying to remain true to one’s roots.  And through it all, machismo threads its way, coloring everything.

The Boy Kings of Texas is an outstanding memoir.  It is one that I likely will re-read in years to come.  Compared to the other National Book Award finalists in Non-Fiction, it ranks very highly, as the story told is moving, with excellent character descriptions.  If there were any quibbles that I would have with it, perhaps it could have been divided into two books, pre-move to Seattle and post-move, but that is more because I would like to have more of his story to read than any real flaw with the memoir’s narrative.  The Boy Kings of Texas is simply one of the best books on a very strong shortlist.

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