Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Heart Is a Drunken Compass

Domingo Martinez’s second memoir, My Heart Is a Drunken Compass (Lyons Press), is a riveting roller-coaster of emotions from a writer struggling with his internal demons, mortality, family disasters, guilt, and the brink of failure. He succeeds to pull up from repeated nose-dives into oblivion, in part, through writing, a hard-won self-awareness, and friends who value his social insights, humor, and irrepressible spirit. My Heart Is a Drunken Compass is a must-read for those who love painfully honest memoirs and first-rate storytelling.

The book continues where Martinez left off in his first memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, a visceral exploration into Mexican-American families in South Texas, machismo, alcoholic self-destruction, and even creativity and self-reliance amid abject poverty. Derek, the author’s younger brother, is bright, and wins a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, only to descend into drinking binges that alienate him from the family. In one of these episodes, Derek passes out, smashes his head, and ends up in a hospital with serious head injuries. 

The author is plunged into an obsession with not only Derek’s mortality but his own, with missed opportunities and the guilt that comes with self-analysis. Martinez questions whether his actions as a brother caused Derek’s alienation and drinking, whether the alcoholic machismo the older brothers mimicked from their father only encouraged Derek’s own imitations of the brothers. Martinez also criticizes his mother’s divorce from his father, yet he also sympathizes with her. The author also escaped to Seattle to free himself of the toxic family environment in South Texas. 

After Derek recovers from non-life threatening injuries, Martinez segues into his erratic relationship with Steph, “the slim-hipped gentile promised to every son of an immigrant family as per the American Dream.” Bossy and bohemian, Steph is also running away from her family and leads the strangely passive Martinez to camping trips he detests and other misadventures in Seattle. Often when Martinez rethinks a decision he has made with her and wants to question or abandon what they are doing, she displays a terrific anger. Yet the sap still loves her:  Steph proposes marriage to Martinez, and he agrees. 

That’s the point where the relationship unravels. Steph continues her strange behavior of promoting half-truths about her past, manipulating Martinez into more misadventures, and finally punching him in another fit of anger. Martinez has had enough and more or less ends the relationship, yet he still goes back to Steph when she proposes another trip. The author meets Sarah, a level-headed and intelligent older woman, a philosophy professor he loves for her mind even if he is also attracted to her physically. In retrospect, Martinez recognizes how Steph ‘cannibalized’ his soul. As the relationship with Sarah begins, Steph is in a horrific car accident that leaves her with a traumatic brain injury. 

The ex-fiancé takes it upon himself to care for Steph, even though her Anglo parents hate him, even though Sarah feels as if she is having an affair with Martinez because of his devotion to the injured Steph. This is the most puzzling aspect of the memoir: this continued and guilt-ridden devotion to Steph as Martinez flounders with alcoholism, fights to keep Sarah, and struggles as a failing writer. It was a godsend that Sarah came his way, and that she is the one who tells him “to write your way out of this.” And he does so, brilliantly. So Martinez finally realizes what he has to do, with a little help from his friends. 

In My Heart Is a Drunken Compass readers are perhaps treated to the importance of the ethical quality of writing. That is, how writing about something happening to you now, even horrific disasters, gives the writer a way to gather meaning from a chaotic present, to process it, and act so that you make better choices. Martinez earns your trust as a writer and a storyteller because of his messy honesty that mirrors the lives of most readers: his heart is out there, in words, and it gets battered, and he also does much of the battering himself, but he still keeps going.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on December 28, 2014.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The King and Queen of Comezón

The King and Queen of Comezón (University of Oklahoma Press), by Denise Chávez, is a sometimes hilarious, often raunchy novel that enlivens the characters from a fictional small town in New Mexico, yet it also has an uneven narrative flow that may frustrate readers.

The Fiestas of Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre consume the tiny town of Comezón. Arnulfo Olivárez, an old man dying of cancer and a babyish buffoon, dresses up in an ill-fitting charro suit to attempt to lead the festivities. His eternal comezón is “to love those who didn’t love him, and to have those he didn’t love so much love him so hard.”

Chávez applies this metaphor of the comezón—an itch akin to desire, yearning, unrequited love—to all the characters in one form or another, a tactic that can be revelatory as well as repetitive. Juliana, the disabled daughter in a wheelchair, yearns for Padre Manolo Rodríguez, who in turn desires the well-endowed Juliana, not to mention a return to his native Spain. Lucinda, the wild other daughter, yearns for Ruley Terrazas and to discover the secret behind her real mother. Doña Emilia yearns for her husband Arnulfo to love her and be faithful to her. Don Clo yearns to be like the good man Rey Suárez, the proprietor of the Mil Recuerdos bar, where everyone is also waiting for something to happen.

Amid all of this yearning and waiting are reminiscences, discussions, and arguments where Chávez often focuses on meando or peeing, pañales or sanitary napkins, chones, “that strange fish juice and the powdery acrid smell of crotch,” “thighs dark con el chorro de sangre,” farts, culos, and so on. Sometimes these raunchy references are rip-roaringly funny, yet they also seem occasionally gratuitous, as if the vulgarity is inserted to create levity and movement in a narrative that sorely needs them.

This points to the central narrative problem of The King and Queen of Comezón: most chapters read like character studies rather than parts of an evolving story. The reader, instead of moving forward with a story, must follow lengthy back stories in each chapter—indeed, entire chapters that are back stories—about why a character is who he or she is, what happened in the past, and why it matters to a character’s portrayal. But not much is happening in the narrative present: we are simply learning who these people are.

Emblematic of this narrative problem is when Emilia locks herself in her room, not feeling well: it takes seven chapters to break that door down and to find out why it matters. The reader also feels a comezón, and it’s for a story where action primarily determines character.

A subtler issue with the novel is the constant shift in perspective and voice, not only from chapter to chapter, but paragraph to paragraph, and even within paragraphs. The reader jumps around in Arnulfo’s head for a few moments, only to find him- or herself in Juliana’s head unexpectedly, or Emilia’s, or Padre Manolito’s. Narrative momentum is lost with such haphazard, unexpected shifts in perspective and voice.

Chapter Sixteen, “The Confession,” is an excellent chapter in which Juliana confesses her love for Padre Manolito, and he reveals his conflicted feelings for her. The tension palpitates on the page, the suspense is unleashed through dialogue, and action determines the strength and self-knowledge of Juliana. If only the rest of the novel had been like “The Confession.”

Denise Chávez is an important chronicler of life on the border. She writes about the gritty peccadilloes that make us who we are, as well as the greater sins that condemn us. Those Chávez characters who rise above their lot in life, particularly independent and self-aware women, deserve our attention and admiration as readers.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on November 23, 2014.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Letter from a Reader

Hello Sergio,

I wanted to reach out to you and share how much I relate to the personal essays in Crossing Borders. I am currently an undergrad student at the University of California, Irvine studying Spanish with an emphasis in Education. Like the majority of immigrant families in California, my family is originally from Mexico. Del Norte del país, estado de Durango to be more specific, just like your family.

I truly admire how much involvement your parents had in your education growing up. Most importantly, I admire you for carrying those family values and raising Aaron and Isaac the way you did. Unfortunately I grew up with a single mom, who worked until late hours of the night to provide for my siblings and me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll always be grateful for the sacrifice she’s made for our family, but she had very little involvement in my educational path. And as I continue on this path, I see our relationship growing more distant. Like you and your mother, my mom and I always had a really good friendship, but being away from home has made it difficult to relate to each other’s lives.

I see myself growing apart from my mom, my comfort zone, and for what purpose? I am surrounded by Asian, Middle Eastern, and white students who walk around like they have their lives figured out. Upper-class students who pull up to the parking lot in their Audis, Mercedes, Lexus; they would never be able to relate to my family’s financial situation. They would never know what it’s like to sleep in the living room because their family of six can barely afford a two-room duplex located in what’s considered the “ghetto.” Yet here I am, reading over your personal essays and reflecting on my decision to cross this border. My decision to continue with my educational goals, even if it meant growing apart from my mom, and her contribution to my Mexican identity. So more than anything, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you for making me feel like I’m not alone.

I truly want to make a difference in our Mexican-American/Latino community. The families in our community need to make a change and be more college-oriented. We need more families like yours. More parents like Bertha and Rodolfo because a “Mexican accent” doesn’t stop them from getting involved in their children’s education. And for the parents who do not have the time to get involved like my mom, at least get them to understand the importance of a higher education.

Anyway, I hope you get to read this really long message. Even if you don’t respond, I just want you to see the impact your personal essays had on my personal life. Thank you and I am definitely interested in reading more of your work!

Alejandro Favela


Alejandro, I've read and re-read your letter several times. I write for readers just like you, and I can only say thank-you for writing such a wonderful, heartfelt letter to this writer. Every writer who toils alone for years deserves a letter like this, which gives him encouragement to keep writing. And yes, you are not alone. I am with you, if only from afar.

I think it's a difficult journey we are making, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be making the journey. I think you should be proud of your mother (as I am of my parents) for what they could teach you, about hard work, sacrifice, friendship. She may not understand everything you are doing now, but make an effort to get back into her community, to teach her about what you know now and why it matters to you.

I know you will find others who assume their position in life, who seem so much more sophisticated than you, who will never understand the poverty you grew up with. I know I did. Take it as an advantage, the advantage of being real, the advantage of knowing good people exist in all strata of life, the advantage of not being easily consumed by things. I have met so many people who assume they are right simply because they are rich. You show them otherwise. As a teacher once told me, "You show them that a Mexicano can beat them with his mind!"

Yes, you are right that I am trying to write about the great values we have in our community, through books like Crossing Borders, and how to translate those values in other settings beyond where we grew up. That's what will move our community forward, in my opinion. I believe we should also criticize those values that are not helpful to us, and leave them behind. I want this conversation to occur in our community, so that we can be self-reflective, so that we can improve ourselves, so that we can be proud of ourselves, yet without being idealistic or romantic about our community.

Thank you for reading my work. You made my day.