News and Features

‘Boy Kings’ – A Texas Underdog at the National Book Awards

Tomorrow’s National Book Awards include several finalists with Texas ties. Dallas author Ben Fountain, for instance, is nominated for his novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. KERA’s Jerome Weeks talked to another Texas finalist, whose debut memoir has become a favorite underdog.

  • KERA radio story:

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Domingo Martinez’ memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, stands out among National Book Award finalists. It’s his first book, a rough-and-tumble confessional about growing up in Brownsville. It’s from a small press, and it’s in the non-fiction category where all the other authors have Pulitzer Prizes and where some are magisterial works like the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. As a result, news stories about Martinez often cite his new reputation.

He’s a complete long shot.

Martinez laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “the whole dark horse mythology. I’m very comfortable with that because – well, it’s absolutely accurate. I’m going up against some heavy hitters, and I feel like Seabiscuit.”

Boy Kings also stands out because it comes from a place rarely heard from in literary circles: the Mexican-American barrio in a Texas border town. Among Texas memoirs, Martinez’ family probably ranks as the darkest and most dysfunctional since Mary Karr’s in The Liars’ Club. Martinez’ tough grandmother takes out insurance policies on her male kin because, odds are, they’re not going to live long anyway. Martinez’ father can’t keep the family’s small-time trucking company from sliding into marijuana smuggling. He even risks the family by having them help him drive the first trailer-full past border security.

But before he does so, Martinez’ father consults a curandera about their chances. A curandera is a shaman, part-healer, part-high priestess, part-family therapist.

When he was younger, Martinez says, “I was very much locked into the Western debunking of silly little Mexican superstitions. I’ve grown older. I’ve realized how necessary it is for people like my father who can’t actually make the full leap into science and analytical thinking. He really needs that. And so that woman really played a role in my dad’s life.”

Even as the Martinez family consults a traditional curandera, they’re seen – by their neighbors, even their cousins – as putting on airs. Thanks to Martinez’ mother, Vela, they speak English. Martinez’ sisters — desperately insecure about their poverty and their own social place in high school — even try to pretend they’re blondes from California. Martinez himself feels like the complete outsider. He does well at school — when he actually attends school — and he prefers gloomy British bands like the Cure to heavy metal or radio pop or Mexican corridos.

When everyone in the barrio is without indoor toilets, such differences of language or musical taste may seem small. But such flash points are classic issues among American immigrants: Where is your source of pride? Fitting in with the new country? Or staying true to the old?

Martinez says an outsider probably couldn’t tell the differences between his kin and the working-poor family next door. But he says, “There was this real sublimated sense of superiority. The more American-slash-the-whiter you were, the more – I’m going to use the word ‘uppity.’ And so all these things would build suspicion and envy.”

In Martinez’ case, that suspicion and envy — combined with the tangled competition in the family over the truck company — all lead to a coke-addict uncle trying to beat Martinez to death. And to Martinez’ own tearful escape from Texas, his attempt to escape the family legacy of resentment and machismo, self-medication and class shame. He moved to Seattle – where he still lives.

Boy Kings may sound grim but what also marks the book is its unconventional approach. The book loosely follows Martinez growing up in Brownsville and trying to fit in when he gets to Seattle. But the chapters often jump into flash-forwards and flashbacks, even flash-sideways. The narrative can switch from stoner humor with his fellow high school truants to the family’s annual butchering of a hog for Christmas sausages.

That episodic structure, Martinez says, partly derives from the book’s origins as a series of independent short stories. But it also comes from his adolescent TV viewing:  “I watched a lot of BBC growing up. Doctor Who really leaves an impression on a young mind,” he chuckles. “And I think that was what was most irreverent. I was describing gritty Mexican culture in Brownsville, Texas, with kind of a BBC3 flair.”

‘Irreverent’ might not be the word some relatives would use to describe Martinez’ unsparing account of himself and life in Texas. But Martinez says perhaps his biggest surprise isn’t his book’s award nomination. It’s been his family’s eager acceptance and the  public reception it’s gotten in south Texas.

“Quite frankly,” he says, “I didn’t think I was going to get such a positive response. While a lot of the stuff I write about is the most painful and shameful aspects of our lives, they have been the biggest advocates in this.”

Regardless of what happens at the National Book Awards tomorrow, Martinez says he’s already at work — on the tenth chapter of his next memoir.

  • Domingo Martinez reading from The Boy Kings of Texas. He’s moved to Seattle but realizes he has to return to Texas — and considers what that means.

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The other National Book Award finalists with Texas ties:

  • In poetry: Tim Siebles, Fast Animal (he’s a graduate of SMU and taught high school English in Dallas for ten years.)
  • In non-fiction: Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (Caro’s  not a
    Texas author, but obviously, you know).
  • In fiction: Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which you can read about here, when we predicted it was an event worth looking forward to in 2012).