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-fiancĂ© 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.)