One night after quarreling with friends, a drunken, angry, guilt-ridden high school kid called Junior Martinez wandered his home town of Brownsville, Tex., and happened on his old grammar school, El Jardin Elementary —“the Garden of Eden” in his memory. He scaled a 10-foot fence and discovered, instead of the staid, old brick building he remembered, “one of those cheap, awful squat one-room buildings that the government likes to hand out to overburdened schools.”
He shoved a concrete block through a fiberglass window, hoisted himself in and trashed the room: “I sullied. I shattered. I destroyed. I uglied. But I did not defile, I felt. There was still love in what I was doing.” Stumbling out onto the street again, he discovered a phone booth and reported the crime: Skateboarders did it, he told the dispatcher, who kept him on the line until the police arrived to arrest him.
Trashing the school is a small enough incident in a memoir packed with murderous (and, yes, loving) rages, but it’s key: It’s one scene in which an idea about injustice, rather than a person, is the object of Martinez’s fury. The telling is robust and raucous, the distillation of his feelings about school and Brownsville’s culture. Martinez and education might have been a perfect pairing, but after only three years at El Jardin, he was rezoned to a tough school populated by kids with minimal English, and there began the slow drift into disaffection, drink and drugs that left him barely able to graduate from high school. But the 17-year-old school-savager was also a stringer for the Brownsville Herald — already a writer — who refused to sign the police charge sheet, “ripe with misspellings and egregious syntax.”
“The Boy Kings of Texas,” recently nominated for a National Book Award in nonfiction, joins a rich body of Mexican American coming-of-age narratives to which writers such asRichard Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, John Phillip Santos and Oscar Casares (who also grew up in Brownsville) have contributed singular, often highly literary visions. Martinez focuses on the culture of machismo. He’s hardly the first to work through that lens, but his strutting style attempts to simultaneously embody and refute a macho world, beginning with a prologue that quotes “El Rey,” Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s popular anthem to machismo: “I know very well that I’m on the outside,” the song starts, an explanation for all the lines to follow.
Martinez’s father oozes and spits machismo — he subjects Junior to creepy sexual bragging and beats him most memorably when he arrives home from a front-lawn football game with his arm dangling. His son, in turn, does not spare him any blame. Neither, however, does he assign machismo to a single sex: “ ‘El Rey,’ ” he says, “illustrated clearly what had so viciously plagued my father, and well, his mother, who was as butch as they come.” The memoir’s early pages are loaded with beatings but even more sensationally with the possibility of murder: His Gramma, he charges, “kept his [grandfather’s] insulin from him as punishment for his last bender,” involving — as benders in the Martinez world often do — another woman, but she “didn’t mean to kill him, not really.”
It’s quite a charge to make about a living gramma, but there are more to come, and more blame to be assigned, even to his mother, who Martinez believes withheld love when he most needed it. This list of familial sins is not delivered, however, in solemn, self-righteous accusations, but in stand-up mode laced with ambivalent affection: “The Boy Kings of Texas” reads like a rollicking cross between Facebook rant, meandering blog, comedy club routine and NPR personal essay (one of its funniest chapters was adapted for public radio’s “This American Life”).
The narrative builds emotional intensity with fight after bloody fight. Martinez provides intermittent psychological insight (he refers to a therapist who’s helping him probe these wounds) and even more intermittent sociological analysis, sometimes resulting in ethnic auto-slur and vast generalization: “Latins, I’ve come to diagnose, are capable of only one type of love,” he pronounces, and “Mexicans innately consider homosexuals to be a third sex.” Mexicans may have a variety of beliefs about homosexuality, but those beliefs aren’t innate, they’re learned.
Like one of his drunken relatives, Martinez often rambles and repeats himself, but settling emotional accounts here functions as the necessary psychological clearing-of-the-air before the memoirist can begin to understand the bigger issues his family faced as Mexican Americans in a famously hurting border town. Though I wish there was more of his sharp analysis, I’m grateful for the quick jabs, like one on “the idea of Texas,” where “the generations-old classism and racism insinuated itself like a prearranged agreement . . . you were never personally invited to previously arrange.” He also delivers strong and implicitly forgiving insights about the brutality of his grandmother’s literal hunger as a child, or about the ways his siblings, especially his older brother, have protected him.
His stories are as eye-poppingly and bruisingly painful as they are funny, and if his family’s sore at him after this book is published, it sounds as if he has a lot of practice dealing with that.
THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS
By Domingo Martinez
Lyons. 443 pp. Paperback, $16.95