A few choice reviews of Drift

Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Pierce


By Manuel Luis Martinez

Text, 296pp, $23.95

"Drifting's the way," a Greyhound bus passenger instructs the 17-year-old Robert Lomos jnr. He also recommends Emerson and Thoreau, advocates respectively of self-reliance and the healing powers of nature.

Yet Robert, the hero of Mexican-American author Manuel Luis Martinez's second book, is on a more purposeful journey. He has left his resolute grandmother in San Antonio to travel west from Texas to Los Angeles. There he hopes to find his flaky mother and younger brother Antony. His feckless musician father, who requires others to "swim in the river of his thought", may also be on the scene.

Robert is in a line of descent in American literature from Huckleberry Finn through Holden Caulfield. Critic Leslie Fielder called this type a "good bad boy", someone who instinctively antagonises those in institutional authority, but will bravely, kindly, and sometimes disastrously follow his own lonely way. The impulses of his heart will always overbear his social conditioning.

Robert's world in the westside of San Antonio is one of Dexedrine and gangs, casual sex, low-life bars, hanging out with other Mexican-American kids, "hitting the bong and listening to Nine Inch Nails". Yet he has half-formed aspirations, not only to be part of a whole family again, but to free himself from the impoverished fate of so many of his contemporaries. He believes in the credo of his grandmother: "Never keep yourself from those things that appear hard."

Wise grandmothers in fiction usually equal schmaltz, but Martinez avoids that taint. Robert's narrative voice is alert and unsentimental. If unsparing of himself, Robert yearns for a less troubled life, wishing that "I could turn into a bat or mist or just drift away while everyone sleeps".

In the daytime, he tries to stick at school, nurses a stomach ulcer, takes a job in a restaurant. In a food scene grislier than anything recounted by Anthony Bourdain, we are led into the kitchen, where workers skin the meat from pigs' heads to serve "barbacao" to waiting customers. That is not to mention the tripe, eyeballs, and cold, grey brains wolfed down on corn tortillas.

One suspects this may be part of the novel's autobiographical burden. When Robert reaches Los Angeles (after travelling with people who look like "they are being deported to hell"), he accepts a job as a busboy at a Sizzler. Here the clientele are not hungry Latinos but the "guts", over-stuffed and greedy Angelinos.

Robert survives with a courage that does not flag, notwithstanding a despair that he cannot always master. He turns a cool eye on those he serves, on those for whom he works and on the macho Latin-American culture that dictates that men feel better if they can have "a woman notice that he's ready to get violent".

In life, Martinez has made his own escape, it seems, from San Antonio. Now he teaches American literature at Indiana University. But if that is the path out of life as a burro - one of the labouring poor - Robert's story in Drift does not take us all the way.

The novel has an ending that would be happy if it did not also appear to be provisional and not free from jeopardy to the hero. And of Martinez's career, one wonders whether he can grow and surprise us, or - like Twain's Huck Finn - have only the one great (and sometimes ghastly) story to tell.

Peter Pierce is professor of Australian literature at James Cook University, Queensland.


Manuel Luis Martinez. Drift. New York. Picador. 2003. vii + 244

pages. $14. ISBN 0-312-30995-3

MANUEL LUIS MARTINEZ’s first novel, Crossing, made visceral the

tragic story of Mexicans trying to cross the border into the United States in search of a better life. In his recent novel Drift, he turns his attention from geopolitical border-crossings to those imaginative and psychological borders his young Chicano protagonist, Robert Comos, learns to cross as he struggles to survive in contemporary America. As the story unfolds, Robert encounters a series of obstacles—an uncaring reprobate father, racism in and out of the classroom, loves lost and won, for example—that help him find that peaceful place within himself that ultimately leads to self-empowerment.

When we first meet Robert, he’s living with his “Grams” and attending Catholic reform school in San Antonio, Texas. We quickly discover that his thirst for drink, girls, and rock ’n’ roll are

more than the usual teenage distractions; they’re his way of escaping memories of an abusive and philandering father and covering

over his deep feelings of loss for his mother and little brother who moved to California without him. Not finding any suitable

outlet for his angst at school or at home with his “Grams,” Robert sets out on the road for Los Angeles to reconnect with his mother

and brother. However, his dream to bring the family back together again is soon dashed when his father brings his violent chaos

back into the picture. Although Robert does have a heart-to-heart talk with his mother (she tells him that she can’t escape her sadness,

which is “the ocean itself”) and makes amends with his brother, he realizes that his trip to LA is not the end of his journey. As he reflects, “You can’t shake your demons in hell.” So, he returns

to San Antonio where he experiences a life-changing event that inspires him to take up the pen and write his story. Here, he

discovers the power of writing as a way to share with others what he learned and remembers from his experiences. “In that way,” he muses, “maybe we can choose what we become, at least a little.” Martinez is a writer with great sensitivity to his craft as a

storyteller. He deftly employs impressionistic portmanteau words and a quick, rhythmical narrative style to texture powerfully

a world as seen through his young Chicano protagonist’s eyes. Too, Martinez is a novelist who actively engages with and

re-forms the stories and characters that have peppered our contemporary

American literary landscape. Drift is packed with direct and indirect allusions to Kerouac’s On the Road, John Rechy’s City of Night, and especially Oscar “Zeta” Acosta’s Autobiography of the Brown Buffalo. For example, as is the case with Acosta’s firstperson protagonist, Robert suffers from a permeated ulcer and assumes an alter-ego persona to steel himself against a racist world.

Martinez’s knowledge of literary convention as well as his deft use of narrative style and technique make memorable this story of

a young Chicano who finally discovers a present filled with empowering possibility.

Frederick Luis Aldama

University of Colorado, Boulder

Copyright 2003 The Sunday Oregonian

The Sunday Oregonian

August 24, 2003 Sunday SUNRISE EDITION



SOURCE: NESTOR RAMOS - Special Writer, The Oregonian

Picador, $14 paperback, 256 pages Summary:

Manuel Luis Martinez's "Drift" is the sometimes tragic, sometimes comic tale of one teen's coming-of-age "It's split into five areas," Robert Lomos Jr., the precocious, troubled 16-year-old narrator of Manuel Luis Martinez's new novel, says of San Antonio, his home. "And growing up here, you know which one is which, and you figure out quick which one you belong to."

For Robert, that's the barrio. In this and most other Southwestern cities, Mexican Americans make up large segments of the population, but occupy neighborhoods that are visited by few nonresidents, and they work day-labor and dead-end jobs to get by. It's the sort of place even fiction doesn't often venture, but "Drift," Martinez's second novel, has its roots in the place.

For all the violence that defines this setting, though, the relationship between Robert and his grandmother is at the story's heart. At the novel's opening, Robert lives with "Grams," who cleans houses in San Antonio's white neighborhoods. His mother has fled to Los Angeles with Robert's younger brother following a nervous breakdown, suffered when Robert's father left two years earlier.

Robert has a nasty habit of finding himself on the receiving end of fierce beatings. He's just been kicked out of his second high school, and he's now enrolled at a Christian academy, though nothing about the place suggests that his time there will end well. With his friends goading him on, Robert lives as many teenagers do when surrounded by bleakness -- he does drugs, chases girls and gets in fights. All the while, though, the subtle nuances of Robert's narrative voice begin to take hold, and he becomes something different from his pack of friends.

The story gets its fuel from Robert's attempt to move to Los Angeles for a reunion with his mother and brother, though that, too, seems doomed. It is from the long passages dedicated to memories of Robert's family that the reader latches onto this narrator, and trusts him, even when he doesn't act in his own best interest.

Robert is ambitious and sensitive, two things that make life nearly impossible for a kid in a tough neighborhood. He develops "the Face," a malicious grimace designed to convey the impression that he fears nothing, feels nothing. In fact, Robert feels everything as intensely as any teen who has lost his parents, and he quickly wins us over. His cynicism masks a hope that pervades the entire novel.

This hope marks the work as an important one: Despite all the rough language, violence and teen sexuality, it is never exploitative. It serves instead as an entry in a new literature. Martinez is one of a handful of writers (Junot Diaz is another) telling firsthand the stories of first-generation Mexican Americans and Latinos growing up in the barrios.

Only Martinez knows how much of the book is autobiographical, but even the sequences and characters that don't ring true serve a greater purpose. If Robert's beyond-his-years wisdom seems to fade in and out occasionally at the novel's convenience, it's to illustrate something about the closed circle of life in the neighborhood. During these instances, Martinez's ear for dialogue, peppered with Spanish phrases and seasoned liberally with profanity, keeps things alternating between tragic and comic.

"You have to do the hard things," Robert's grandmother tells him, and, sociology aside, that's what Martinez's novel is about. At 16, it's a lesson people begin learning in the suburbs as well as in the slums. It's a coming-of-age story, really, and it may prove to be part of the foundation of a new literature that is just gaining momentum. Nestor Ramos is a Portland writer.

Washington Post Book World


Martha Bayne

Robert Lomos, the 16-year-old narrator of Manuel Luis Martinez's first novel, Drift (Picador; paperback, $ 14), is the kind of misunderstood kid who's forever trying to do the right thing. But with every well-intentioned

step forward, he somehow always winds up two steps back. Whether he's been tripped up by his own bad instincts or rudely shoved on his rear by the uncomprehending world is a question he spends much of the book trying to

answer. Robert's father, a musician, has skipped town for a life on the road, and his desertion has sent the boy's emotionally fragile mother over the edge. As the story begins, she's little more than a phantom, having herself

abandoned Robert to the care of his grandmother and moved to L.A., taking his little brother with her. Driven by a gasping longing for his family, Robert spends his nights (and a whole lot of days) smoking weed, popping

pills and aimlessly cruising San Antonio looking for a party -- or a fight-- hiding his hurt and confusion behind a mask of tough-guy bravado that he calls "the Face." He combs Vonnegut and Heller for answers and tries to sort out his future through a pot-drenched fog, laughing feebly at his own absurdity. Once he gets thrown out of his third high school, he takes off on a half-cocked adventure to retrieve his mother and patch his family back together.

It's an old story: a lost boy, a quest, failure, redemption. But Martinez, who teaches American literature at Indiana University, nails the brash voice of a cocky teenager amped up on adrenaline and desire so perfectly that the novel crackles with the authenticity of lived experience. His descriptions of the informal economy of minimum-wage labor in which Robert is entrenched are particularly vivid. When Robert is slinging cow tongue and brains at the barbacoa, his disgust is visceral; when he is busing tables at the Sizzler, you can practically smell his loathing of his brown polyester shirt. At the end of his travels, the small salvation he discovers in love -- for his dying Grams and for a bruised girl named Amelia -- is rendered without fanfare, but the quiet relief it provides from his crushing exhaustion makes it seem the most terrific prize imaginable.


Manuel Luis Martinez

From the Melbourne Herald Sun

(Text) $23.95 PB

 Drift, Martinez' second novel, was released in the United States in May this year, where it was received with almost total approval by the critics, being both intellectually fashionable as a glimpse into an ethnic minority, and effective as an entertaining, engaging story. Thanks to keen culture-scouts at Text Publishing, we now have our own, locally-produced edition. Hopefully Australian readers will not be put off by the blurb Text are using to promote the book, which somewhat over-emphasises the sensational (drugs and violence) aspects of the story, at the expense of its many other layers.

Drift is an emotive, almost melodramatic first-person narrative from the perspective of 16-year old Roberto Lomos. Roberto is growing up in the Chicano (Mexican-American) community of West-side San Antonio, Texas. His family has split apart some two years before the beginning of the novel - first his father leaving, then his mother having a nervous breakdown and being taken away to Los Angeles by her sister. This leaves Roberto without any immediate family, looked after instead by his hard-working, devoutly Catholic grandmother.

Roberto gives us plenty of hints that the loss of his family, especially the rejection implicit in his mother's departure, is the main source of pain behind his hopelessly misguided, self-destructive adventures. His mother has become deeply depressed, lacking in any willpower, thus allowing herself and her younger son Anthony to be dragged away by her domineering sister. Meanwhile Roberto is considered too difficult, too like his treacherous father, to be included in this remodelled family. But he is so besotted by his mother's memory that he cannot be angry at her, while his youthful pride prevents him from showing how hurt he is.

Parental abandonment is only one part of Roberto's problems: his lack of money, social status, or educational achievement means that the adulthood thrust upon him is a far-from-promising prospect. He works in fast-food joints, on construction sites, he works for Mexicans and White men, neither of whom give him the slightest respect. At age 16 he is already being boxed-in to the life of a poor, uneducated  Chicano - a burro (donkey), as his Grandmother describes it. Her love and patience provide the only stabilising force in Roberto's life, even though her religious admonitions do more to fuel his stoned paranoia than to give him any sense of purpose.

'Sense of purpose' is always misplaced, tragic, and destructive in this story. It is the best the protagonist can do to escape the absolute drift in which his itinerant father lives. The first-person voice is extremely effective at creating intimacy between us and Roberto. It also makes the tragic turns of the novel more poignant - we see through his adolescent thought-processes to realise things about him before he does. He has something of the alienated melancholy of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, and something of the total desperation of Ari in Loaded. But his narrative also has a concrete, socio-economic edge, giving us an insider's perspective into the day-to-day lives of a particular community, a group whose access to the American ideals of equality and opportunity seems decidedly limited.