A Boy King’s Literary Coronation
Aside from the enviable noise that floods a first-time author who has just been nominated for the National Book Award, the Seattle-based Texas transplant is also working hard on his next book, and thinking about how fast his life has changed.
“It’s been a tsunami,” Martinez tells me on the steps of the state Capitol, on his way to find a drink and a nap before his next Texas Book Festival panel.
It’s also been an emotional nightmare: “I was warned by my editor and agent that I was going to experience something like a postpartum depression after the book got accepted [for publication], and yeah, for three months I didn’t do anything but stay indoors with the covers over my head, only scurrying out to venture for food and booze.”
That’s the last rest Martinez has gotten since the July release of The Boy Kings of Texas, his memoir that has received glowing reviews and is already in its second printing. And now, with the National Book Award nomination bringing even more attention, the grateful but road-weary Martinez sees no end in sight. “I’m fucking sick of talking about myself; I’m fucking sick of talking about the book,” he says, knowing there will be no letup in the coming months.
The book is a hilarious yet hellish account of wasted days and wasted nights in Brownsville, which Martinez depicts as a dirt-poor land of extreme machismo, where growing up means having to contend with a drug-smuggling father and the hijinks of two sisters who bleach their brown hair blond and call themselves “Mimi” in a fruitless effort to pass as Caucasian.
A nonfiction masterpiece, The Boy Kings of Texas is already being assigned in classrooms, and will surely become a Chicano classic—an irony not lost on an author who is absolutely uninfluenced by Chicano literature. “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Martinez says, “but I don’t read Chicano literature.”
Not that he hasn’t tried. “I stopped because I was so frustrated with the style,” he says. People give him flak for this, but Martinez claims his literary ambitions were largely shaped by a Maya Angelou speech in which the poet described her life as a young black girl who looked all over for books to identify with, found none, and so wrote her own. “I thought, I want to read a book about boozing, fighting and fucking in Mexico—I think I’ll write it,” he says, with the kind of rhetorical sarcasm that courses through his debut. “I want to entertain myself. Sometimes I find myself to be the most entertaining person I know; there is such a satisfaction in making yourself laugh.”
That may sound onanistic, but he felt he had to write the book or go crazy. “My life was repressed memories and denial,” says Martinez, who felt marginalized within his own community and in his struggles with the memory of molestation. “If I wasn’t brave enough to bring it all up, then I had no business writing.”
The Boy Kings of Texas was a hard sell, though. “What we were getting is that Mexicans don’t buy books,” Martinez says. “I wanted to defy that institutional prejudice.” Still, as he worked on the book Martinez was often discouraged by feedback from readers who seemed to want their stereotypes validated. “People would read it and say, ‘You know what? I want to know what the music was like, what the food was like.’ They really wanted me to Mexie it up.” But Martinez refused.
And now that stubbornness has paid off in another way. On the Monday before the Texas Book Festival, Martinez had lunch with acclaimed Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek, who had read The Boy Kings of Texas and wanted to discuss potential projects.
Hayek’s production company, Ventanarosa, has since optioned the rights to Martinez’s memoir.
“She was repeating things back to me from my book that I didn’t know were there,” Martinez reports. “She told me that the description of machismo from the inside by someone who doesn’t participate in it was a book she had been waiting to read for 10 years.”
A memoir by a Mexican dude who listens to The Cure instead of cumbias, hates football and is indifferent to fútbol, and would rather drink Belgian beer than Bud Light. Who would’ve guessed that this is what Hayek and so many thousands of other readers have been waiting for?