Manuel Luis Martinez’s new novel, “Drift,” takes Chicano literature to new levels
Author: Manuel Luis Martinez
Publisher: Picador; St. Martin’s Press
By Pablo De Sainz
When one reads the tag “Chicano Literature” on the top of a bookstore shelf, the first thing one may assume is that the novels on that shelf are full of stereotypical works with a great deal of stereotypical characters (cholos, gardeners, migrant workers), stereotypical foods (tamales, tacos) and stereotypical music (mariachi, salsa).
Fortunately, Chicano literature (that is, literature written by Chicanos) has passed its predictible stage and new voices are arising that are breaking new ground. Such is the case of Manuel Luis Martinez’s and his second novel, “Drift” (Picador, 2003).
It tells the story of 16-year-old Robert Lomos, a guy from San Antonio who is drifting through life: he’s been kicked out from three different high schools; he’s always smoking weed with his friends, looking for parties and girls; his father quit his family; his mother has suffered a nervous breakdown and decided to move to Los Angeles, leaving Robert back in San Antonio with his grandmother.
The story might sound similar to stories by other Chicano writers, but Martinez’s has created a compelling character, that has nothing to do with cholos or migrant workers.
Martinez said about his literary influences: “Many assume that I was most influenced by Chicano novelists such as Tomas Rivera, Ernesto Galarza, Oscar Acosta, Sandra Cisneros, etc. But I did not grow up reading them because I wasn’t exposed to these fantastic writers in school. It wasn’t until after my BA that I got around to studying (and focusing) on Chicano literature. My most influential writers, I would have to say, have been Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, JD Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut. They are all dark writers whose characters find a way to survive in a hostile world, but lessen the pain of that brutal world through a sardonic, ironic, sense of the absurd.”
San Antonio is the main setting in “Drift.” Martinez explains that this was done on purpose.
“I consider myself very much an autobiographical fiction writer, so I think the region does make a difference. My first two novels are definitely influenced by the fact that I grew up in San Antonio, and they’re dealing with adolescent narrators.”
Robert Lomos, the protagonist in “Drift,” moves from one place to the other: from having a family to not having one; from going to school to being a drop-out; from San Antonio to Los Angeles, where he goes after his mother and little brother. Mobility (or instability) is a major theme in Martinez’s fiction.
“I became really interested (in mobility) because my grandparents [who were migrant farm workers] saw the downside of mobility in America. That mobility can, in an ironic or even paradoxical way, actually be about being fixed in one position. Moving constantly prevents you from putting down roots, from solidifying community. What really got me thinking about that was my own movement. I grew up in south Texas, was educated as an undergrad in San Antonio, and very close to my family, as a lot of Latinos are.”
And just like “Drift” is full of movement, Martinez assures his readers that movement will keep on appearing in his later works.
“I guess most writers jump on a theme that speaks to them and just keep coming back to it over and over again. I’ll probably be stuck on that one for a while.”
If “Drift” accomplishes something, Martinez says that “I want my readers to find that even though human communication is so difficult, that even though we are in many ways seemingly doomed to live alone, within our own constrained subjectivities, that we are NOT alone, that as humans we share the same longings and desires, and that if we can tap into that commonality, that we’ll be better for it. I guess you could say that I’m a humanist that is not naive about the pain and suffering out there, but that still believes that through empathy (through art) can alleviate some of the pain and loneliness inherent in life.”
Much of Martinez’s fiction, including “Drift,” is autobiographical. He tells us about his “decision” to become a writer:
“My father had been diagnosed with cancer and he was in the hospital awaiting a very serious operation. I realized that I was now 20 years old and yet had NEVER had a conversation with him. So I decided that I was going to give him a story to read that would communicate that which I could not articulate to him. I wrote what turned out to be about seven short stories for my father, I found that I had a calling.”
For Martinez, his second novel, “Drift,” can be read by any person from any ethnic background. And after reading it, one can agree with that.
“I think the experiences I talk about in ‘Drift,’ I don’t want to say they’re universal but it is about growing up, it is about adolescence, and I think anybody can relate to that. I think the Latino experience definitely inflects it, gives it a different character, but I think there’s stuff in there that anyone can relate to. Hopefully.”