The Boy Kings of Texas

By Domingo Martinez (Lyons Press, 2012)

I can say with a certain degree of confidence and even Latino pride that most fans of the growing-up-is-the-pits style of memoir — a genre that includes Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club — have not often come across an autobiography as whacked-out as The Boy Kings of Texas.

In Domingo Martinez’s first book, the reader will encounter the struggles of a sensitive youth yoked to the rough border town of Brownsville, a scary, poor place where fathers and sons team up to smuggle pot, curanderas are consulted about border crossings, guys hock their mothers’ pistols for six-pack money, and a kid who is brazen enough to ask to borrow your tennis shoes turns up dead because he was brazen enough to go out with some drug thug’s girl.

There is good reason why you don’t see much of this kind of writing. The information divulged — about extreme poverty and misplaced machismo in a land where (at least at the time our author was skipping school to listen to Pink Floyd) higher education is actually discouraged — can be as unbelievable as it feels unbearable. And if these chapters wherein kids are swapped around families like cattle, receive underground haircuts and read J.G. Ballard and Victor Frankel accounts of concentration camps to feel calmed were not handled with the proper amount of self-deprecation and respect, then this document would absolutely drag.

But The Boy Kings of Texas is anything but flailing, and somehow the Pushcart Prize-nominated Domingo Martinez, whose work has been adapted for This American Life, seats within his somber South Texas song a note of hilarious, if fed-up and sarcastic, discord.

“My God, did I hate football,” writes Martinez, who goes on to describe the futility and frustration he felt about the sport he was forced to play. “For months, it seemed, our football team would practice in order to schedule a game against an equally inadequate and unprepared South Texas high school team full of kids who were terribly similar to ourselves. Only to expose our inadequacies and incompetence at their feet, and then one side would soundly beat the other by scoring hundreds of points, this way or that, while cheerleaders blandly encouraged the team and their families, with meaningless chants, boring and terribly unsexy cheers.”

With The Boy Kings of Texas, a new and important truth about those Rio Grande Valley border towns like Brownsville and McAllen has finally emerged, one that takes into account the brainy boys of the barrio who read Cyrano de Bergerac between waiting tables at the Olive Garden, and play hooky at the Holiday Inn in order to discuss foreign films. Sure, there have always been stories about smart kids who want to leave town or risk going nowhere in life. In the Valley, where there is also a high chance of succumbing to border violence, Martinez unveils the lives of smart kids who feel they need to leave town or else simply die of boredom.

Roberto Ontiveros