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Originally published Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'Boy Kings of Texas': a tough, tender tale of growing up in the barrio

Seattle writer Domingo Martinez's memoir, "The Boy Kings of Texas," is a hilarious and heartbreaking story of a sensitive soul who grows up in the macho barrio of Brownsville, Texas. Martinez reads Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Domingo Martinez

The author of "The Boy Kings of Texas" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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An extraordinary book. What a story, what a voice. MORE

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'The Boy Kings of Texas'

by Domingo Martinez

Lyons Press, 443 pp., $16.95

With a plucky underdog who can be hilarious and heartbreaking in the same breath, "The Boy Kings of Texas" is reminiscent of Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

And like Oscar Hijuelos' "Thoughts Without Cigarettes," it chronicles the tough coming of age of a poor, fair-skinned Latino who is both outcast and very much boy in the 'hood; smart and utterly rudderless.

Seattle writer Domingo Martinez joins good company with his memoir of growing up a sensitive soul in macho Brownsville, Texas. It's a fresh, welcome perspective.

The saga of the Mexican-American Martinez clan and assorted relatives and neighbors in the barrio unfolds like a mashup of a telenovela and a Robert Rodriguez pulp film — physical, sexual and emotional abuse; drugs and alcohol; and, despite it all, loyalty. A legacy of addiction and "horribly complicated feelings."

Major players include a brutish father; a pistol-packing grandmother; and a mother at turns harsh and neglectful toward Martinez and his beloved older brother, Dan, and doting toward their sisters. Yet these siblings are decent and devoted. Also providing comfort and encouragement along the way are the kind parents of friends, mentors at his eventual newspaper jobs and a gentle grandfather.

Martinez has a gift for storytelling, with alternately good-natured and sardonic wit, and quirky pop-culture reference points. Describing his '80s fashion sense, he writes "... you couldn't get the Cure or the Smiths paraphernalia in Texas during this time, so I had to be content with dressing as much like Robert Smith as I could, which wasn't much, since he wore cardigans and lipstick and his hair like Elizabeth Taylor after a hard night with Richard Burton. Couldn't exactly get there, from here."

His riff on his family's predilection for nicknames is a hoot. "... Daniel was called !Denny!, always with that exclamation point. Dan grew up startled. And I was, as Domingo Martinez, Jr., called Yuñior, eventually to be called 'June' ... I was a boy named 'June.' "

It's Dan who introduces Martinez to Seattle, a "wet wilderness of civility" with "crows ... slick, shiny, and dark and smarter than most people I had grown up with in Texas."

Poignancy is never far behind, as in a passage where Martinez tries to explain to distraught baby brother Derek why he must leave Brownsville and, as he packs, has epiphanies about his emotionally stunted Gramma and mom, revelations involving Ramen noodles and Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."

Word geeks will especially enjoy an anecdote about a drunken teenage Martinez's New Year's Eve in the slammer, where he rants at his jailers about the poor grammar on his arrest report.

" ... The guys in the overnight cell: They were enthralled, lined up against the bars and snickering. I was their copy-editing Spartacus that night. It was either that, or they wanted to kill me ... "

Good thing he lived to tell the tale.

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.

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