Caramba!, by Nina Marie Martinez



'Caramba!': slow, but muy caliente

By Paul Kafka-Gibbons  |  June 13, 2004


By Nina Marie Martinez

Knopf, 360 pp., $24.95



Nina Marie Martinez's first novel is at once delightful and frustrating. The delights include the unfolding of an elaborate structure: 79 short chapters are divided into 48 sections, each section titled according to "turns of the card," such as "The Siren" and "The Lunch Wagon." Martinez's prose is surprising and fresh, a menudo of English and Spanish, as in Lulabell "has heard of sueo viejo. That's when you are so tired, even if you sleep soundly for two weeks, you will still be exhausted. Is Javier advocating the existence of such a thing as llanto viejo? Old pent-up sadness that should have been cried out years before?"

And one can only love Martinez's circle of characters: her two heroines, Natalie and Consuelo, best friends since girlhood, town beauties always up to something; handsome young Javier, a born-again mariachi, whose troupe plays only gospel until Javier falls in love with a beautiful woman convict, Lucha, during a strolling jail concert. Then there's Javier's mother, Lulabell, a witch in middle age who longs for an ordinary marriage but must bewitch herself in a homeopathic manner to accept the plain, aging beau who has courted her for 40 years. And Don Pancho, Consuelo's father, a dead man whose existence in purgatory is dominated by English-language classes.

Nina Marie Martines

Martinez is inventive and witty. She is resourceful and patient, and shares her passions generously, whether for old Mexican calendars or for the songs on her favorite honky-tonk jukebox. But, ay caramba! Martinez's plot moves very circuitously and one might even say slowly. Her characters just don't get very far in their loves or journeys, and this rhythm of delay works against the author.

Martinez's setting is Lava Landing, a fictional California town just north of the border. Her most favored protagonists, Consuelo and Natalie, or Sway and Nat, have two problems: They can't decide if they want men, and they can't leave Lava Landing together. The first is the more serious concern. They have vowed in elementary school to be best friends forever and not to let any boy or man come between them. This is fine. We accept the premise that their happiness does not require physical intimacy within a committed relationship (these gals are straight and have lots of flings with guys). But there is the self-confessed desire of Nat to be swept into the arms of a macho man who will make her a wife and mother. The situation has gotten so bad that when Sway's father, Don Pancho, visits Nat in a dream, urging her to go to Mexico and get the women of his birthplace to pray him out of school, Nat gets the hots for him. "He came to me in a dream and he was so handsome. He said he would give me anything I wanted, and in that moment, I wanted him. Sometimes I feel lonely, Sway. Like I'm the sorta girl that can't do without the affections of a man. . . . Just so long as he's not too painful to look at and he knows how to put the touch on me." So that's problema numero uno: no serious guys for Nat or Sway.

The second and related problem is how to get Don Pancho out of "the Perg," as he calls it. Don Pancho was killed by a train after stalling his truck on the tracks near San Luis Ro Colorado, Sonora, when he was out drinking and womanizing as always. He may or may not have succumbed to a suicidal impulse; like everything in "Caramba!" the death of Don Pancho is a borderline situation. But because he apparently did want to kill himself (he had plenty of time to climb out of his truck and go to sleep on the ground out of harm's way), he must be prayed out of limbo by his hometown women, many of whom he loved and left in life. Nat must travel to Don Pancho's pueblo because Sway, his daughter, has a deeply seated fear of public transportation, especially trains.

In Mexico, Nat meets Amador. "He was tall and thin, with bad posture. He sat slouched in his garden chair looking at her with aching eyes." Amador is not only an irresistible intellectual, he's also a take-charge kind of guy, as Nat learns on their first and only date. " 'No need to be nervous, my love,' he said. He pinched her by the chin, then urged her lips toward his ever so slowly." Nat starts to fall in love with Amador, but does she see him again? No, she leaves Mexico as soon as Don Pancho is liberated (Nat convinces the townswomen that Don Pancho will perform miracles for them, and Don Pancho goes on to become the patron saint of drunks and prostitutes). Nat doesn't even try to get in touch with Amador. This is frustrating and leaves the reader in doubt: Why can't Nat and Sway grow up, and still be best friends?

"Caramba!" is a tour de force of stylistic play and structural layering. Rich with the sights, smells, and, above all, the spoken language of a part of the world that is as real as it is imagined, Martinez's borderland is ripe for her own literary exploration. I enjoyed this muy gordo novel almost all the way through, but I'm sure the best of Martinez's work is yet to come.

Paul Kafka-Gibbons's new novella, "Markie," may be downloaded at kafka-gibbons.net. 



Chica Lit
Reviewed by Carmela Ciuraru

Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page BW08


A Tale Told in Turns of the Card

By Nina Marie Martínez. Knopf. 360 pp. $24.95

At first glance, it would be easy to mistake ¡Caramba!, the debut novel by Nina Marie Martínez, as a product of McSweeney's, the mini-publishing empire founded by the writer and impresario Dave Eggers. With its glossy, retro cover, floral endpapers, maps, drawings, hand-scrawled letters, multicolored pages and other graphic flourishes, the novel has a striking design, imbued with the kinds of visual details that McSweeney's books are known for.

The busy jumble of the book's design reflects the picaresque narrative, which offers a Mexican game of chance as its structural conceit, six protagonists in search of fulfillment and an incongruous mix of highly stylized diction -- all of which gives the impression of a zaniness that seems strained. Even so, ¡Caramba! is so endlessly inventive and full of such oddball humor that it remains compelling throughout.

Martínez lets her characters loose in Lava Landing, a fictional California town on the Mexican border, in which Spanish and English merge into Spanglish, and the boundaries between the fantastic and the real aren't entirely clear either.

The opening seems to set the stage for a "Thelma and Louise"-like adventure, when a young woman named Natalie gets a frantic call from her best friend, Consuelo, saying that she has just killed a man. Natalie takes off in her prized 1963 Cadillac El Dorado convertible to counsel Consuelo, but not without taking a moment to admire her car. "In that day and age as well as any other, a girl needed all the advantages she could get," Martínez writes, "and Natalie was happy to have a car that was on the one hand beautiful and elegant, and on the other, responsive and powerful -- characteristics she strived for in herself." Before heading to Consuelo's house, Natalie takes a pragmatic detour to the gas station, because "Common sense and the movies told her that when two girls go on the lam, a full tank of gas is an essential starting point."

As it turns out, Consuelo didn't exactly kill anyone, but rather inspired an accidental death -- "he got himself runned over because some pervert was busy checkin out my nalgas," she explains. "He was even usin the crosswalk." The crisis ends as quickly as it has begun: "May the good Lord rest that poor man's soul," says Natalie, "but it's Saturday night, and I was just wonderin, ¿what's the plan, chica?" The scene is typical in this episodic novel, in which characters veer from one bizarre melodrama to the next, yet seem fazed by none of them.

In addition to Natalie and Consuelo, known as Nat and Sway, the cast includes Javier, an evangelical Christian mariachi in love with a convicted drug dealer; Lulabell, his equally lovesick, witchcraft-dabbling mother, who "out of spite for her former Lord Jesus Christ," works only on the Sabbath; True-Dee, the frustrated transsexual owner of a local beauty salon; and Don Pancho, known as DP, Consuelo's dead (but very much present) father, who appears to his daughter again, imploring her to make a pilgrimage to his Mexican hometown. Lava Landing itself, with its dormant volcano, seems to be another central figure in the novel. (And it's a none-too-subtle metaphor for the cycles of eruption and release that the characters experience throughout.)

The scattered nature of the various plot lines clearly has to do with this being "a tale told in turns of the card," based on La Loteria, a traditional bingo-like game of chance. An image of a Loteria-style card featuring a pithy saying -- "Upon Inspecting the Garbage Cans, I Came Across a Treasure," "Shrimp Who Sleep Will Be Swept Away By the Current" -- introduces every chapter in the book and relates in some way to that section. Although this imaginative structure is appealing, the lack of cohesion is frustrating.

Yet ¡Caramba! has no shortage of delightfully unexpected elements of humor; one two-page spread features "Lulabell's Guide to Mexico," a thematically charted map marked by regions like "Men Most Likely to be Homosexual" and "Land of Men Macho and Persistent." And the book is full of funny throwaway lines. Commenting on Javier's sudden religious conversion, Natalie says, "Just amazin what the alleged love of the Lord has done to that boy. He's a far cry from the kid that stuck his hand down my panties on the bus ride home." Beyond cleverness, though, such quirky elements don't add up to much; then again, superficiality is hardly the worst trait a novel could possess.

At times, ¡Caramba! transcends kitschiness and absurdity to evoke something more authentic. Natalie and Consuelo's relationship, for instance, conveys genuine intimacy, particularly in their unique brand of shorthand-speak. Elsewhere, however, there isn't enough going for the characters for the reader to feel invested in them. Martínez describes Javier's impassioned nature as reaching into every aspect of his life, down to his favorite meal: "Javier was crazy about tacos. He loved them the way some men love their women: with a nice, hard, firm shell." When Martínez is funny, she is very, very funny. Her deadpan perspective on faith, romance and the uneasy bonds of family is truly wonderful. Had she infused ¡Caramba! with more depth, this could have been a great novel instead of a merely clever one. •

Carmela Ciuraru is editor of the anthologies "First Loves" and "Poems for America." She lives in New York City.


 May 19 - 25, 2004                          

Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card
By Nina Marie Martínez (Knopf, $25.95)

In the middle of the good-natured chaos that reigns in this debut novel, one of the more ordinary characters (a long-suffering tow-truck driver) tells the familiar story of his parents’ emigration from Mexico. The simple anecdote is powerful, but it cannot hold its own against the tidal wave of zany comedy and melodrama that characterizes most of this fun but insubstantial read.

Nina Marie Martínez turns on the charm in the rollicking main tale of Consuelo and Natalie, lifelong best friends and residents of the California border town of Lava Landing. The two embark on adventures with larger-than-life characters including Consuelo’s deceased father, who’s locked up in Purgatory (“the Perg”); devout Christian missionary and mariachi Javier; his incorrigible mother, Lulabell; and transvestite hairdresser True-Dee (so named for a sugar company). Despite such color and antics, Caramba’s soap-opera plot is unevenly paced and, at times, awkwardly written. Apart from Consuelo and Natalie, these garish, cardboard characters remain as resolutely superficial at the story’s end as they were in the beginning.

Martínez has a knack for the absurd but stumbles in her use of fantastical elements—love spells, fortune-tellers, messages from God written on a tortilla. Unlike the truly effective magical realism of Márquez, Allende, or Borges, Martínez’s use of such devices seems tacked on, unreal, not organic to the novel’s underlying reality. Though goofy and entertaining, they don’t carry any weight.

The real magic in Caramba is Martínez’s witty, ori­ginal presentation of California-Mexican culture, from migrant workers, lunch trucks, and mariachis to Cadillacs, telenovelas, and shoes “de la Payless®.” The author shines when she straddles the porous border between old country and new, across generations and income levels, combining classic elements of the lotería with references to Mexican cowboy movies and Patsy Cline. Martínez is a charming writer with an obvious gift for language, irony, nuance, and sly observation. She’ll do better next time to spare us the magic and concentrate on reality. SUMMER BLOCK

Nina Marie Martínez will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., May 20.




A Tale Told in Turns of the Card

By Nina Marie Martinez

KNOPF; 365 PAGES; $24.95

"Caramba!," the first novel by Nina Marie Martinez, is a triumph of whimsy and imagination -- Monty Python meets "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

When I first started reading this book, I felt annoyed by all its quirks. Why does the author insist on using the registered trademark symbol (®) with the avidity of a child who has just learned an impressively big word? Why does she insist on using Spanish-language punctuation marks for sentences in English? She makes a veritable fetish out of these things. I ran into a sentence, in the narrator's voice, that contained the phrase, "ninety-two hundred-dollar bills that would have went to wine, dine, and woo the girl ..." What was her editor thinking?

But by the time the story had caught me up in its cross-cultural delights, I knew exactly what Martinez's editor was thinking. She was thinking, "Wow! This is something absolutely and authentically new! This author is going to be a star."

If you're not completely bilingual, you'll know a lot more Spanish when you're done with this book than you did when you started. Like Henry James in his late period, Martinez writes in a language that is only nominally the English of everyday life. But whereas James takes us on a serpentine linguistic journey along the pathways of his long and elegant sentences, Martinez writes in a mock heroic and often deliciously funny Spanglish that comes to dominate more and more as the book capers on to its end.

Thus when one of the book's shadier characters is trying to seduce the man she desires, a born-again Christian mariachi (yes, that's what I wrote), she declares with all the lustiness of a south-of-the-border Molly Bloom, "I'm a woman, y como una mujer, I got my necesidades. If you don't give me what I want, I get it elsewhere. Así de fácil. But if you see to my needs, I give you my soul, then you give it to the Lord, and boy don't that ever make Him happy. " (Carry your Spanish dictionary with you while you're reading this book, because there are no translations and there's no glossary at the back.)

But the payoffs of this raucous romp through small-town life in the utterly made-up border town of Lava Landing, Calif., make the effort worthwhile. When the book's two main characters, two long-legged twentysomething beauties named Natalie and Consuelo, watch Javier, the mariachi, drinking tequila after his night of love, the author remarks, "Nat and Sway had never seen him look so secular." Later on, the author tells us, "the missionary in Javier was in complete remission" and details "final primperations" the girls are making for the town's annual Baile Grande or Big Dance -- "El momento que everybody has been waiting for." Reading that, we know we're in the presence of someone having a blast with what she's writing.

Natalie and Consuelo speak with a diction that Mark Twain might have used for Huck Finn if there'd been a sequel that took place in Mexico. ("Well I hope you're not feelin bad about it, because it ain't by any means your fault. That's just the price of bein purty.") It's all pure play, as far as language goes. Even Martinez herself is something of a made-up concoction. Now a resident of Santa Cruz (and a graduate of the university there), she was born and raised in California and didn't learn to speak Spanish until she was an adult. But this does nothing to diminish the considerable charm of her creations.

The book is illustrated and loosely organized by a selection of brightly colored Lotería cards ("A game of chance," the author tells us, "not unlike bingo ..."). There are even paper dolls in traditional Mexican costumes "for the little girls, boys, and cross dressers in us all." Besides the proselytizing mariachi and a transvestite hairdresser who gives Tupperware parties, "Caramba!" boasts a delightful, long-suffering soul -- that of Consuelo's dead father -- who is trying to get his daughter and her best friend to rescue him from the endless boredom of Purgatory, where he's been forced to study English for the past 27 years. Heaven, for Don Pancho, when he finally makes it up there, comes complete with a hacienda and a sidekick. He's told that he has to start performing miracles now. "Listen up, my friend," says someone who's already been in Heaven for a while. "This place is like any other. You have to work hard just to get by." Don Pancho does so well with his miracle-working that he becomes El Santo Patron de los Borrachos y las Putas. I'm not even going to tell you what that means. •

Barbara Quick's newest book is "Even More/Todavía Más," a bilingual picture book for children and their mothers, illustrated by former Bay Area artist Liz McGrath.




Pop culture images tell an odd tale in '¡Caramba!'

Web Posted: 05/09/2004 12:00 AM CDT

Patricia Trujillo
Special to the Express-News

¡Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card
By Nina Marie Martínez
Knopf, $24.95

I am jealous and delighted all at the same time.

Jealousy first: For years, I've been collecting tiny books of ethnic paper dolls because of their potential use in creating art. Little Miss Hispanic American Girl. Little Miss Swedish American Girl. Little Miss Native American Girl. They are stashed away in a shoebox waiting for me to do something with them. When I flipped through "¡Caramba!" — a graphic novel that utilizes pop culture images — I immediately spied Little Mexican Girl's dresses! Dang, Nina Marie Martínez beat me to the punch!

Now my delight: I spied Little Mexican Girl's dresses! Martínez uses the paper dolls along with other images to inform a narrative that is set in the make-believe border town of Lava Landing, Calif. Girlfriends Consuelo and Natalie work at the Big Cheese Factory by day and cruise in a 1963 convertible Cadillac to clubs by night. Their community includes True-Dee, a transgendered hairdresser, drag-queen performer and Tupperware party hostess; Javier, a born-again Christian mariachi, and his mother, Lulabell, a woman in charge of her own sexuality, born with "a natural knack for witchcraft." Throw in Consuelo's father in purgatory (yes, he's dead), who visits all the characters in dreams trying to solicit prayers for transcending limbo, and you've got a good introduction to the larger-than-life plot that Martínez has constructed.

Written in short vignettes, the narrative structure is reminiscent of the Mexican/Chicano literary genre, the dicho. The dicho, or folk proverb, is an expression of personal philosophy and folk wisdom, which serves as a guideline for moral values and social behavior. The book is organized by Tablas, which in turn are separated into vignettes labeled by a "card." The visual representations beginning each chapter are from (or inspired by) the popular Mexican game, La Lotería, and corresponding with each illustration is a short dicho. Here, Martínez takes liberties with the traditional genre of the dicho, using it at times as pedantic — El Árbol/ The Tree: El que a buen Árbol se arrima, buena sombra le cobija (He who props himself against a good tree is covered well by the shade) — and at other times more like advertising copy — La Peluca /Blonde Bouffant: Lo que usa la Castaña, y a todo el mundo engaña (The Blonde Bouffant Wig: What the brunette uses to fool the world). The images and the text interact on several levels, and "¡Caramba!" challenges readers to discern that the words and images have very sophisticated relationships with one another. This book demands a visual literacy as well as a verbal one.

The visual artifacts' true beauty is that they are as much a part of the larger story as the narrative. Martínez boldly asserts that common place pop icons have stories, too. Further, she adds new images to the traditional deck of lotería cards, including El Tupperware ®, La Tarjeta Telefonica and La Herradura de la Suerte, proclaiming that pop icons do not exist in a vacuum and do evolve when necessary.

Other than being a beautiful book to look at — it has 83 color illustrations in text — "¡Caramba!" is a beautiful book to interact with, getting us to connect with the symbols that often feed our cultural and artistic experiences.

I suspect that my jealousy is quickly dissipating into admiration because Martínez is a very clever writer/artist. I think I'll have to pull out my paper dolls for further investigation. Don't miss out on this book! Perro que no sale no encuentra hueso. (The dog that doesn't go out won't find a bone.)

Patricia Trujillo is a San Antonio writer studying for her doctorate in English.


St. Petersburg Times

May 9, 2004


By Nina Marie Martinez

Knopf, $24.95, 366 pp


Take one part Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one part John Irving and one part Tom Robbins, cram into a blender, set it all on puree, and the resultant mixture might turn out to be a book approximating what debut novelist Nina Marie Martinez has created with Caramba! This first novel is a wild, wonderful, comedic tale of female empowerment and road trips in which nearly everyone takes it on the lam at some point.

Natalie and Consuelo ("Nat & Sway") have been fairly content with their life in Lava Landing, Calif., which is perched near a sleeping volcano. After working all day at the Big Cheese Plant the two girls let off steam at the Big Give-Four, the town's juke joint. And there's always the yearly distraction of crowning Miss Magma (never mind that April May, the homeliest girl in town, always gets the tiara because of her red hair).

But these small-town girls have big dreams as well. Nat and Sway have been planning a road trip in order to break in Natalie's 1963 Cadillac convertible. Their one obstacle is Sway's fear of public transportation and long car rides. Fate steps in to give the girls a push when Don Pancho - Sway's father - keels over in Mexico. Because of his womanizing and nightly carousing across the border in Mexico, Don Pancho is "promptly relegated to Purgatory where he was forced to learn English by the low-ranking Saints and Angels Who ran the place."

Faced with a mission - the need to save Don Pancho from Purgatory - the girls cure Sway of her fears and head off to Mexico. Along the scenic route Nat and Sway rub shoulders with Javier Solis (garbage man by day, Christian Mariachi by night), Javier's mother, Lulabell (who renounced Christianity to become a witch) and Tru-Dee (a transsexual hairdresser who yearns for romance and a man who can appreciate all of her qualities).

Martinez writes like a veteran novelist: confident of her characters, certain of her direction, watching over all with the omniscient voice of a born storyteller. Her playfulness with language (mixing Spanish and English words and punctuation) betokens a joy of her craft found only in the best sort of writers. Martinez never "writes down" to any of her characters; all are treated with equal love and authorial respect.

Caramba! is like a literary burrito: each new layer reveals a tasty surprise. It wouldn't be hyperbole to state that Caramba! may be the most entertaining, hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience many folks will have this year.

Dorman T. Shindler is a freelancer from Missouri.


Santa Cruz Sentinel

April 25, 2004

Chris Watson: Bookends

Beach Flats author pens colorful telenovela

Nina Marie Martínez was 14 when her parents separated and she moved from Hollister to live with her dad in San Jose.

Up to that point, Martínez had only a scattering of Spanish words to connect her to her Mexican-American roots.

And as she watched her father renew his acquaintance with his heritage, she realized she didn’t have the tools — the language — to reach out to the culture all around her.

So she did what any self-respecting modern American teenager would do — she immersed herself in the language and the culture by watching Spanish-language television, dancing to Latin rock ’n’ roll on the radio and losing herself in old Mexican movies.

It was the beginning of a transformation that would eventually take this bicultural American to the University of California and beyond — to a writing career.

On Thursday, Martínez will read from her debut novel, "¡Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card," at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

It’s a wild ride of a novel that will remind many readers — with its rash of characters caught in high drama — of the oh-so-popular telenovela dramas on Spanish-language television.

But the story, Martínez said recently from the comfort of her Beach Flats home, was shaped first and foremost by Lotería, the bingo-like game popular in Mexico.

"I never played Lotería until I visited Mexico when I was an adult," Martínez said. But images from the cards, she said — La Sirena, El Diablito, La Muerte, La Bota, El Nopal, La Bandera and more — can be seen everywhere, even in Santa Cruz, on T-shirts, glassware and art.

She recalled an early introduction to the game.

"I saw a wonderful old Mexican movie, a typical shoot-em-up film from the late ’30s, early ’40s," Martinez said.

In the film, the bad guy kills the good guy’s father and, in turn, all his brothers are gunned down until only he remains.

Then, the good guy challenges the bad guy to a friendly game of Lotería. And when the caller calls out the card for El Muerte, death, the good guy yells "Lotería" with the winning hand, pulls out his gun and shoots the bad guy.

In "¡Caramba!," Lotería cards not only bring structure to the chapters but the dichos — the sayings — on the cards offer some balancing folk wisdom to the crazy melodramatic characters and situations.

"Shrimp who sleep will be swept away by the current" may not be a saying that speaks to everybody, but in Martínez’s novel, it dovetails nicely with the meta-purpose of the book — to connect, in one place, as many cultural references as possible.

"It’s important," Martínez said, "to find a way to connect with the religion, the culture and the language of your home."

"¡Caramba!" — with about six characters (and counting) in the town of Lava Landing — is also filled with music, romance, dance, a pistola or two, some drugs smuggled in tamales sold off a lunch truck, a Tupperware party, a witch, a transvestite beautician, gangs and ex-convicts, a rodeo, a yard sale, rape, incest, a psychic, a kilo of cocaine, love potions, guitar serenades, a dinner for ranch hands and day laborers and (my personal favorite) a dead guy trying to get out of Purgatory by bugging the living in their dreams.

"People say my book is like a telenovela, and I think that it is, in the way the characters narrate their lives — very dramatically, very over-the-top, with secrets revealed," she said.

"But my novel is really more like a corrido— a musical genre that became popular during the Mexican revolution and tells a song about a man and his horse.

"Today, though, a corrido is more likely to be about a drug trafficker and his truck."

However you style it, "¡Caramba!" is pure adrenaline and lots of fun.

And Martínez hopes that the people she’s writing about — the immigrants, the families who pray together, the girls working in factories, those living on the fringe or making do with minimum wage jobs — will be attracted to the story and make it part of their culture as she’s tried to make their culture part of her book.

A resident of Santa Cruz since 1995 when she came to study at UCSC, Martínez still makes ends meet the way she always has for herself and her 14-year-old daughter — she buys and sells vintage clothing.

And even if the intended reader of her novel is too busy watching reality TV or flipping through the ads in a magazine to read her book, Martínez has faith that her book will find a home.

Having it translated into Spanish and distributed in Spain and Mexico ought to help.

"The book will go out into the world and find its family," she said. "It will find its family."