Publishers Weekly Interview with me about Drift

Publisher’s Weekly: Book of the Day: Drift by Manuel Luis Martinez

At first glance, Robert Lomos, the narrator of Manuel Luis Martinez's

second novel, Drift (Picador), seems to fit in the old pattern most

first-person teenage narrators occupy: he's a conveniently well-read,

articulate youngster. Robert comes from the tough Westside of San

Antonio, Tex., where the Mexican bakery closes early because the city

council has somehow forgotten to ensure that the street lights work in

the roughest part of town. Although Robert has already been kicked out

of one high school for not attending, he announces early on in this

abundant novel that instead of going to school, by golly, he went to

the library, where he picked up Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22 and Fear

and Loathing in Las Vegas. "Those three kind of explained my life to

me," Robert explains. "Those guys see the world filled with monsters

and freaks."

Martinez doesn't abuse Robert's intelligence for the purpose of making

it easier to tell a story from the vantage point of a teenager,

though. An assistant professor of literature at Indiana University,

Martinez deftly plumbs his vulnerable narrator's personality by

conveying the little lies Robert tells us about himself, lies he has

come to believe and thinks he can put over on us. Robert refers to his

high school as "some hellish battle where a square kid like me was

sure to get stomped." Several pages on, he's smoking pot with a guy

he's just met; later, it becomes clear that Robert has no reservations

about fighting. That's a funny definition of "square."

But if your father suddenly skipped out on you, your little brother

and your mom to pursue the life of a jazz musician, you might act out,

too. After her husband hits the road, "moms," as Robert calls her, has

a nervous breakdown and is ushered to Los Angeles by her sister Naomi,

with Anthony in tow. Robert goes to live with his father's mother,

Grams, who packs him off to Sunnydale Christian Academy, where you get two demerits for going to the bathroom without permission even if you

have an ulcer, as Robert does. On the first day of school, when Robert

is signing the Sunnydale Academy Contract of Christian Conduct, Sister

McNutt, the head of the Academy, appears to be on the lookout for

Satan. Robert seeks a way out, but decides to abide by the rules so he

can enact his plan to move to Los Angeles with a wad of cash in his

hand to show his moms that he's responsible. But to come of age, you

have to learn a cruel lesson: the triumph of achieving your difficult

voyage tends to dissipate if the person you're trying to prove

yourself to is so fragile it looks like she couldn't care less.

"Robert's biting, assured voice makes the book a standout," PW wrote,

adding that Drift is an "impressive" novel.

Martinez's vibrant narrator grabbed Picador editor Webster Younce.

"It's such a distinctive, very viscerally powerful voice that I found

myself sitting reading the manuscript and found it locked in my head,"

Younce says. "It insinuates itself. I had Robert's voice commenting on

the world, and it seems to me that that's what fiction does that no

other form can do. It can change the world in a very immediate sense."

Readers are clearly smitten with Robert. Martinez put his e-mail

address on the back jacket of Drift and has been receiving fan mail:

"I'm a teenager and let's just say I've gotten into my fair share of

trouble," one e-mail reads. "I have a life and I go out with my

friends, I get decent grades. When I read this book, I could relate to

Robert in many different ways. It's weird because he talks almost

exactly like me and a lot of my friends."

Given Robert's popularity, it seemed crucial to ask Martinez how

Robert's voice emerged even though the answer is inevitably ineffable.

"Well, that's kind of an involved answer," Martinez says. "I first

started working on this book in the third person; it was much more of

a memoir of my childhood. It was in some ways creative nonfiction but

it was way too somber. And I thought, 'I'm writing a book about

despair but the last thing I want to do is write a book that people

would think was heavy.'" Switching to first person did the trick.

Martinez, who spends as much time as he can in San Antonio every

summer, had a first novel, Crossing, published in 1998 by Bilingual

Review Press, that featured a group of Mexican immigrants trying to

cross the border to find work in the U.S. Crossing garnered some

favorable reviews, but Drift is of another order entirely. "I

consciously sat down to write a book that would still retain its

Latino framework and Latino experience," Martinez says, "but that

would do so in a way that would be accessible to readers that aren't

Latino."--Claiborne Smith