If I’m rich or if I’m poor
I will always get my way
and my word is my law
I’m without throne or a queen
nor anyone that understands me
but I will keep on being the king
– Lyrics from “El Rey” (“The King”) by José Alfredo Jiménez, translated
Domingo Martinez’s couldn’t have written a more appropriate prologue for The Boy Kings of Texas. Referring to Jiménez’s song as “the lyrical genome for machismo,” which “mapped the emotional DNA of the border male,” Martinez perfectly establishes the tone of his painful memoir. Martinez came of age in the south Texas border town of Brownsville — as south as you can get in Texas before hitting Mexico — and he grew up steeped in the culture of Mexican/Mexican American machismo.
The Boy Kings of Texas is about coming of age in the Rio Grande Valley (south Texas) in the 1980s but never quite fitting in. Martinez and his siblings were only the most recent members in their family’s generations-long cycle of dysfunction, violence, and abuse, much of it stemming from the culture in which they were raised. Given everything that happened in his life, it probably would have been easier for Martinez to write a straightforward retelling of what his life. Instead, what Martinez produced was a powerful book that often feels more like a series of related vignettes rather than a standard memoir.
He digs deep. Yes, he reveals the abuse and starvation his grandmother suffered as a child. Yes, he is honest about the anger he felt towards his father and the betrayal he felt towards his mother and other relatives. Yes, he is blunt about sex and drugs and his adolescent ego. Yet he is always introspective in considering the Why? behind all of these situations. On more than one occasion, he brings up the age his parents were when they started their family — they were still children themselves; his father was the original “boy king.” He also explores enough family history to determine that much of his parents’ dysfunction and abuse stemmed from the post traumatic stress that accumulated from various situations throughout their lives. Most revealingly (and tenderly), Martinez focuses on the tenuous relationship he has with his beloved older brother Dan, who more than anyone was raised to be A Man and A Protector.
The writing is incredible. Martinez’s subject matter is raw, but the prose itself is mesmerizing and entertaining. He is a born storyteller, often breaking away from linear format to develop secondary ideas, then coming back in the end to tie everything together. I loved it.
Martinez was nominated for a 2012 National Book Award in the Nonfiction category. As The New York Times recently wrote, he’s the clear underdog: The Boy Kings of Texas is his first book, and he’s the only nonfiction nominee who doesn’t have a Pulitzer and doesn’t work for a major national publication. And yet? Martinez is the one I’m rooting for because 1) I’m from the RGV and I am soooo rooting for my home team, but 2) the book truly is fantastic. I can’t wait for his next one.
The Boy Kings of Texas was released on July 3, 2012 by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. One of the chapters from this book, “The Mimis,” was featured on This American Life in 2011. You can listen to it here (it’s Act Three).