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Domingo Martinez's Searing Memoir: 'My Heart Is A Drunken Compass'

Image: Domingo Martinez
Domingo Martinez, author of the recent book, "My Heart Is a Drunken Compass." Credit: Nicole Rule Photography Nicole Rule Photography

Author Domingo Martinez distinctly remembers the morning in October 2012 when his phone began ringing. He was lying in bed at his apartment in Seattle and his first thought was, “Wow, it’s so early, these bill collectors are calling earlier and earlier.”

It wasn’t a bill collector. It was his literary agent calling to tell him that his memoir, “The Boy Kings of Texas,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in the nonfiction category. Although Martinez did not win the award, his life was about to change. Soon he was being profiled in the New York Times and on NPR, with headlines like “From Boy King of Texas to Literary Superstar.”

Martinez, 43, grew up in Brownsville, Texas, one of six children in a sprawling Mexican-American family. “Boy Kings” was his first book, a coming-of-age story in which he described his hardscrabble, often abusive childhood.

Now he is back with a new memoir, “My Heart Is A Drunken Compass.” It recounts his adult struggles with alcoholism, anger management, unemployment, a mental breakdown, and even a suicide attempt – all the while maintaining Martinez’ wry, sardonic humor.

"My Heart Is A Drunken Compass" by Domingo Martinez Credit: Lyons PressLyons Press

“It was kind of a strategy,” Martinez said, “with my new book, to see if my readership would shift with me. My first book was so much about Brownsville and my identity. It was really all about family mythology. This book is more about the consequences of family mythology.”

Two tragic accidents figure significantly in “My Heart Is A Drunken Compass:” In March 2007, Martinez’ younger brother suffered a head wound in an alcohol-related accident. In December 2009, his then-fiancé (whom he met on Craigslist) suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car wreck.

The stress of these events sent Martinez into a downward spiral. At age 40, he was delivering pizzas and wondering if institutionalization was the answer to all of his problems. Yet his relentless personal turmoil ultimately led Martinez to a complete reassessment of his life.

Martinez admits that it was not easy reliving his dark times. “Going back and revisiting my lowest periods over and over was agonizing,” he said. “As a writer, you have to put yourself back there, to feel it all over again. I don’t like using the word ‘therapeutic,’ but it was therapeutic. At times it was extraordinarily painful, yet it was also a real pressure release.” He explained that writing about his low points was a way of understanding them; much in the same way that writing about his childhood and adolescence was a way of understanding those years.

“My Heart Is A Drunken Compass” has received positive reviews. The New York Times Sunday Book Review called it “a tragic comedy filled with wit and cultural insight,” while the Seattle Times found it “chatty, funny, philosophical, touching and brutally honest.” Best-selling author and editor Dave Eggers has called Martinez “an essential new American voice.”

Martinez’ success is all the more extraordinary considering, that – as he puts it – “I barely graduated from high school!” He quit college, and never participated in an MFA program or writers’ groups. At the time he signed on with a literary agent, he was working at a dysfunctional copy shop, trying to sell business cards.

“I was born in Texas, and all the signals I got from TV and the larger culture were that we were Americans. Yet we were deeply entrenched in being Mexican," says Martinez. "Acknowledging our in-between-ness — that is the trick, then accepting it and coming to terms with it.”

“I know how lucky I was,” Martinez said. “I did have the raw chops, or at least I thought I did. I worked at it, worked at it, worked at it. Still, my first book took me fifteen years to write. I felt like that was the only thing that was keeping me alive at times.” His advice to aspiring authors is to stick with what they feel is working for them, and not to count on luck. “You find your own opportunity, and you blow it open!”

Now living in Washington State, Martinez said that he still has a love/hate relationship with his hometown of Brownsville. “I have love/hate relationship with the whole state of Texas!” he laughed. “I love being a Texan, but I could not live in Texas. But even after 22 years in Seattle, I know I am not from here; I will never forget that I am from Texas.” He sees this “push/pull diametric” as being analogous to the experiences of many immigrants, and to many Hispanic Americans.

“When I was a kid, I was lost,” Martinez said. “I was born in Texas, and all the signals I got from TV and the larger culture were that we were Americans. Yet we were deeply entrenched in being Mexican. We had our own way of life, surrounded by this machismo mentality, and it all left me confused. You’re half-this, half-that, and never feel a hundred percent of anything.”

“Acknowledging our in-between-ness,” Martinez said, “that is the trick, then accepting it and coming to terms with it.”

These days, Martinez is working on an adaptation of his first book for HBO with actress Salma Hayek. He said that his family has been happy about his writing success, even as he has shared their lives with the world. “I told my father all of the stories in my first book, and he has been very supportive,” he said. “My mom won’t read my (first) book, because she doesn’t want to go back there, but she is happy for me. The rest of my family, my brothers and sisters, told me that I did a wonderful thing, that I created a time capsule of our lives back then.”

For his next book, Martinez is working on a collection of short stories. “I am ready for fiction,” he joked, “no more of this memoir agony!”