I KNOW the Rio Grande Valley; it’s the loud, booming, tumultuous, South Texas borderland where I lived the first 18 years of my life. Most Americans only hear about it when there are a few too many brown-skinned children fighting their way across its defining river; too many corrupt US narcotics officers running their own hustles; too many people there suffering from obesity. These news headlines, spun in print, on television, or on the web, portray my homeland as nothing more than hot, dry, flat, mute, and passive. That’s why My Heart is a Drunken Compass, Domingo Martinez’s second memoir — a whiskey-soaked, musically eclectic narrative — so catches my ear.
Confronting his whitewashed American aspirations, and countering mainstream news about the Valley, Martinez narrates his borderland boyhood and Seattle misadventures — and reclaims South Texas from afar — through a stellar soundtrack. In this latest offering, he once more combines deft literary skill with a cultivated ear, this time producing a grunge-era narrative for the 21st century: ironic, confessional, caffeinated.
When I left the border for college some years ago, I dreamed of permanent escape; and, like Domingo Martinez, I turned to song to process my feelings. I spent hours listening to bands I’d never heard of — Sufjan Stevens, The Bad Plus, Explosions in the Sky — trying to match tunes to new experiences: Indian food, freezing weather, micro aggressions at the mall. I even recorded covers with a used cassette recorder and a busted, acoustic Fender I borrowed from a friend. Each song I sang helped me deal with a hard truth: the world north of the border was nothing like the utopia I’d imagined.
Martinez also deals with this difficult truth. In weaving music throughout My Heart is a Drunken Compass — the sounds of South Texas heat and Northwestern hipness — he maps both worlds: not just for himself but for the kid brother he left behind. The idea was to enlist Derek in his attempt to build his own border:
I taught him about music, and the usual moping, faux-artist adolescent agonizing in literature — the Salinger, the Camus, the James Joyce, and the soundtrack to wankerdom in The Cure, Joy Division, and The Smiths, peppered here and again with the punk energy of the ’70s […] I wore thin cotton tees with a single totemic image center mass, walked everywhere with a pair of earbuds hooked up to my Walkman, which was clipped to my backpack and played an eternal loop of mixed tapes I made at home.
Martinez’s first critically acclaimed memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, begins with a corrido, a folk musical form that came to prominence in the Valley during the 20th century’s fledgling years. Echoes of this form shape each of My Heart is a Drunken Compass’s three movements: “Songs of His People,” “The Unwedded,” and “Looking Down.” In the first, Martinez — aka “June” — recounts the trauma of nearly losing Derek to a drunken death at a Public Enemy concert. But, as noted, long before the accident, big brother Domingo had escaped South Texas and spurned his cultural roots.
He describes his defection — and his family’s response — in prose that is raw, grainy, and energetic, as if he were a pupil of Cobain’s, without the heroin but with the tears:
[…] every day or two days, someone would make contact and try to keep me engaged and up to date on a family I had divorced some years ago to make my claim on the American promise, to reinvent myself like my sisters had done in their middle school years, except I had played it out in the long game, and had been trying to make it entirely on my own as a hard man, a rugged individualist of a sort, a macho, macho man. This turned out to be bullshit, and I found myself to be soft, like a bunny. Broken and damaged, wracked with regrets.
Even so, after hearing the news of Derek’s accident by way of a late-night phone call from their father, Martinez is forced to swallow not only fear and grief, but also self-imposed isolation: while every member of the family flocks to Austin to worry by Derek’s hospital bed, Domingo fumes in Seattle, alone. Right off the bat, he invites us into a loneliness he’s brought upon himself.
In the second movement, “Songs of his People,” Martinez cues up Stephanie — enigmatic, strong-minded, acerbic, and she can carry a tune. Across 11 chapters, Stephanie brings new love into his life — butterflies, shy smiles, playful arguments — though at the expense of her own well-being: she suffers from epilepsy, and Martinez’s stress-inducing stubbornness does little to help.
At the heart of their partnership, despite the things they have in common — music, and a taste for the high life — is an irreconcilable difference: “I knew she began seeing me as this sort of eroticized ‘other,’ because I was Mexican American, from Texas. And I felt the same, as she was the slim-hipped gentile goal of every immigrant story, as I’ve mentioned before.” Like a DJ, Martinez samples the myths of mainstream America, layering in forbidden desire and leaving us listeners to wonder whether we can actually love across distances, geographic or otherwise.
But if his ambivalence about Stephanie is explicit, what it reveals is an implicit identification with an alcoholic father, a machismo culture, and an infamous border. During periodic road trips with Stephanie, Martinez struggles with his own troubled notions of intimacy, scoring his lack of empathy to music:
Off we went, and the four-hour drive was not without its weirdness, as we had both made playlists for the trip. I began to notice that Steph was taking the lyrical insinuations from the songs I’d picked with just a bit too much sincerity, far too literally, and much too personally, to the point where she was becoming visibly upset at particular songs, which, to me, were an enduring liturgy of wordplay and the weary exhaustion of dying relationships […] Everything I was playing was musica verité, the deep complications and sharp-edged intricacies of relationships.
In his inability to see things — and hear things — as Stephanie does, Martinez aligns himself with his father, Mingo, whose blind, alcohol-fueled tirades have etched themselves deep into his memory; because they constitute his earliest model of manhood, they are often the last to be questioned. Eventually, after a predictable break-up, he confronts his own thick-headedness — specifically when he receives a call from Stephanie’s father about a debilitating car accident, the result of one of her seizures. As happened with Derek, Martinez once again finds himself facing death; this time, though, he manages to make it to the foot of Stephanie’s hospital bed, albeit in the company of her astringently WASPy immediate family. When Martinez returns home, alone, he fixates on the image of Stephanie intubated, on the memory of his brother’s accident, and on the weight of his own guilt. Ultimately, these demons create a din he longs to quiet by his own hand.
In the final movement, Martinez loops back into a depression he’s flirted with for years — a depression that, at one point, drives him to drink his weight in booze, tear into his own flesh, and land in the ER. Fortunately, for him and his readers, he also meets and falls for Sarah, a brilliant, even-keeled beacon who spurs his writing habit, sutures his emotional wounds, and becomes a “love everlasting.” Sappy, sure. But, as Martinez might say, you can’t make this shit up.
With Sarah’s support, he begins to pen his world. Eventually, draft by draft, the narrative he began in The Boy Kings of Texas overlaps with that of My Heart is a Drunken Compass, folding over on itself like one of Steve Reich’s tape loops. The cuentos that congeal in this final movement, for all their personalized splicing and painstaking recording, become something of a mixed tape “left behind like preverbal suggestions.”
In the span of these chapters, drifting between Stephanie’s hospital room, Sarah’s embrace, Seattle’s streets, and his own border memories, Martinez finally faces off with the catalyst of his bold confessions: the repeated desertion of those he loves.
I won’t give away the last song — suffice it to say that the author/DJ succeeds in finding relief, just as he has succeeded in recording the sounds and stories of his riven life in a tape that includes pop, folk, rock; the playful, the rebellious, the sullen; even the grungy and the cry-in-your-beer. But the accompaniment aside, Martinez himself has a voice that carries far enough to guide Tejano punks — myself included — through new terrains, less drunken, less loud, less lonely.