Victor Martinez looked out toward where the audience was supposed to be in an auditorium at a recent book reading. Amid a sea of empty seats, he counted six faces--three friends and three people who worked there.
He stayed up until 4 a.m. afterward, just sitting on a hard futon in the small apartment he shares with his wife in the Mission District here, brooding over 20 years of work and sacrifice and the just-published novel that seemed destined to bring him only more obscurity and struggle.
The next day, he got a call from his publisher, HarperCollins: His first novel, "The Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida," was a finalist for a National Book Award.
Three weeks ago, a limo picked up Martinez to ferry him three blocks from his hotel room in Manhattan to the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, where the former field hand from Fresno mingled with New York's black-tie literati. Martinez, who earned $7,000 last year, including a microscopic advance for the novel, joked about throwing a towel over his arm and working the room for tips.
As it turned out, he walked away with $10,000 and the award for young people's literature (a new category for the group).
"The lottery is actually in the realm of possibility," said Martinez, a compact man with straight dark hair falling to his shoulders and a broken-glass voice that speaks passionately about the power of literature. "But the National Book Award? I never even dreamed about it."
Martinez grew up in a Fresno housing project, fourth of 12 kids, charmed the public librarians into letting him check out more books (Verne, Stevenson, London) than they were supposed to and spent a good part of his youth stooped in the fields of the Central Valley, digging produce out of the ground or pulling it off the vine. When he was 14, polyps grew on his vocal cords (which he suspects could have been caused by inhaling pesticides), choking off his voice for almost two years and leaving him with a distinctive rasp before they receded.
Martinez made good grades, and a guidance counselor advised him to aspire to a career as a welder--so he spent a couple of years on a vocational track until another counselor suggested college. He started Cal State Fresno on a scholarship and later used his welding skills to pay his way to an English degree. (Eventually, eight of his siblings earned college degrees.)
A fellowship stint at the creative writing program at Stanford followed, but Martinez never felt at home in Palo Alto and left after his first year.
He worked as a file clerk and a truck driver, wrote poetry at night and saved $20,000 over the next decade. He also married Tina Alvarez, whom he'd met at Stanford. (She now works for the city of San Francisco.) The couple's bankroll would either make a down payment on a house or support a full-time writing effort. "She figured she'd see me more if I just wrote," Martinez said.
Eventually, his poems, stories and essays trickled out into the pages of such journals as the Bloomsbury Review, the Iowa Review and Si. In 1992, Martinez published a collection of poetry, "Caring for a House," with the tiny publisher Chusma House; it sold 3,000 copies. He then watched in frustration as a deal with a university press for a collection of criticism fell through. He turned down teaching jobs as too distracting.
"Poetry is really a cut ahead of everything else," he said. "I felt very connected to what I was writing. I felt that accomplishing one great poem was worth a year of struggle."
Five years ago, he began work on a novel, writing in fits and starts, doing odd jobs to keep his head above water.
Some thought Martinez might be too intense for his own good.
"Victor was always the one in the poetry group who took his work back because he wanted to work on it again," said Juan Felipe Herrera, a Chicano studies teacher at Cal State Fresno who met Martinez at Stanford 20 years ago. "He would destroy 90% of it. He'd take a whole manuscript, maybe 80, 100 pages, and chop it down to two pages and then maybe a couple of paragraphs, then just a stanza or two. I thought he was never going to get anything together because he was so self-critical."
But Martinez finally finished the novel: the story of Manuel Hernandez, a 14-year-old growing up in the Central Valley, the son of a shiftless father and an obsessive mother. The book is something of a Chicano "Portnoy's Complaint" without the sex. Dad calls Manny "Perico" (Parrot), after a Mexican story about a bird who complains about how hot it is in the shade, not knowing that it is sitting in an oven.
Manny fumbles at picking chili peppers until the INS raids the field, busing away anyone who runs and leaving the legal but less efficient Mexican American workers to fight over the abandoned buckets of peppers. At home, his mother scrubs counters as if the pope were expected to stop by and eyes Tony Curtis mixing drinks for a zaftig blond on TV, while Manny's dad, who has lost his job as a translator for the city because his never-great English always got worse after his lunch-time beer, belts down tequila, shifting in his chair to block his wife's covetous glances at an altogether different world on television.
"There were certain rules that needed no part of a brain's labor for Mom to smack me one," the narrator says. "If she caught me cursing, or breaking a glass, she'd pound my arm. Twice if the curse had anything to do with girls, or the glass had milk. . . . With my Dad, it was more simple. If I grew a bit too raucous, he'd put a vise grip on my shoulder and whisper hot breath inside my ear."
Manuel, of course, ignores his parents' strictures, flirts with a gang and a life of petty thuggery, but in the end finds solace in discovering his worth within his family, although the ending is more ambiguous than this synopsis suggests.
"Daily life is both knee-slapping comic and throat-swallowing tragic for this Chicano family dwelling in the projects," stated the citation on the hunk of crystal that the National Book Award jury handed to Martinez. "The metaphors and turns of phrases are so unusual, so plentiful, that the reader winces at Victor Martinez's gritty brilliance."
Gritty brilliance, however, rarely pays the rent, and Martinez received three nice rejection notes for his novel. Then a friend suggested he try sending it to the children's division at HarperCollins. The publisher offered a $4,000 advance for a 5,000-copy printing--which sold out in a couple of weeks, even before the award hoopla.
Now that he's the subject of critical praise, Martinez might even entice a literary agent to represent him; even after being named a finalist, he couldn't get an appointment with one. Since then, they've been calling him--as have more people than he can remember ever knowing.
"I got one novel. C'mon," he said after returning from yet another phone call. "It's more hype than anything else."
Martinez is already at work on another novel, the story of a group of artists in the Mission District afflicted with self-doubt but driven to pursue their calling with no hope of recognition.
After years of literary toil, he's not worried about a book contract or an inspirational advance.
"Maybe it's fieldwork, I don't know," he said. "I like doing something and getting paid for it. I don't like the idea of getting paid in the anticipation of doing something."