Maceo Montoya: Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces
Like novels from other countries/ethnic groups, the Chicano novel has tended to follow a certain path – good vs evil, Bildungsroman, i.e. young man from poor background grows up and makes good. This has changed recently as, following the Latino>Latinx model, Chicano has now morphed into Chicanx and we are now getting more Chicano novels dealing with feminism and LGBTI issues. Author Maceo Montoya teaches Chicano/a – Chicanx literature so he knows a lot about this topic.
This novel can best be described as a gentle tribute to/spoof of the traditional Chicano novel. He has cleverly done it in a somewhat different way to make his point.
We start with a letter from Ernie Lobato. He does not say who he is writing to but it soon becomes clear. He states that his uncle died a year ago in a care home. Ernie’s mother, younger sister of the decased, instructed the home to destroy all his effects. However, they sent a manuscript to the Lobato home, saying the uncle had been furiously working on it for some time before his death. The mother wanted to destroy it but Ernie read it and said it should be kept. He passes it to a colleague, Lorraine Rios (they work in budgeting for the state) who is an avid collector of all things Chicano, or Chicanx.
Lorraine reads the manuscript , saying the uncle is a Chicano Forrest Gump and that it is interesting, as he met a few famous Chicano people and claims to have killed Oscar Zeta Acosta. Ernie has never heard of him. However, he is a well-known Chicano author (I have a couple of his books) and is said to be the model for Hunter S. Thompson‘s Dr Gonzo. His death has never been resolved nor his body found. The manuscript, as we discover, is being sent to Professor Pizarro, an expert on things Chicano (possibly based on Montoya himself?). The manuscript we read will be the uncle’s manuscript, with annotations by Ernie (on family history), Lorraine (on things Chicano from a younger person’s woke perspective) and Professor Pizarro (on things Chicano, from an academic point of view). Of course, all their comments add to Montoya’s mockery.
Our first commentary comes when we learn that the unnamed uncle/narrator comes from a seemingly well-to-do farming family. Chicano heroes do not, traditionally, come from well-to-do families. However, his father decides to go into shoe-making. This does not go well so he makes his workers buy his shoes and they all end up with sore feet. Father soon dies. Our hero, who is both an epileptic and clearly has some mental health issues, is convinced the workers murdered the father and then tried to murder him. It seems that the real story is that the father died of a brain aneurysm and the workers then tried to restrain our narrator who was having am epileptic fit. In any case, the father left massive debts and a pregnant wife. Mother son and newly born child had to sell the house and lost all their property, moving to a small boarding house in Albuquerque.
The mother gives birth to a girl and expects her son to earn his living to support them. He, however, is going to be an artist and go and live in Paris so he cannot waste his time with mundane activities like work. There is a compromise. She goes to work as a cleaner, while he looks after his young sister. However, he farms out the younger sister – the one that we have already met as Ernie’s mother – to local women while he focuses on his art. It is wartime (1943) but our hero has been declared medically exempt. However, he does learn one thing – Albuquerque also taught me that there were two kinds of people: there were decent white people, and then there were Spics, Beaners, Greasers, and Mexicans.
He has one (stolen) book – The Great Book of French Painting – and is inspired by Courbet, Millet, and Corot, not least as his family apparently has French ancestry. However, one of the clever tricks of this book is that our hero, though a would-be painter, neither paints nor draws. As the title tells us, he prepares notes for the works he plans to paint or draw. As a result, he has lots of notes but no drawings or paintings. He also has a disciple – Enrique Hurtado, a local boy who sells newspapers and who thinks our hero is a genius in the making. Enrique is also in love with our hero. Yes, homosexuality in a Chicano novel. Lorraine comments that gay novels have been rejected by Chicanos. John Rechy did write about gay issues but though he was clearly Chicano, he was rejected by the Chicanos and is generally considered a standard US writer. Enrique’s love is not reciprocated as out hero, as we shall see, is boringly heterosexual.
Mother soon finds out that he is not looking after his sister and moves out, later marrying a rich man. Our hero finds notes left by his mother that suggest that she thinks he is insane and should be interned. Yes, a mad hero in a Chicano novel. He therefore also moves out and moves in with Enrique, sending poor Enrique out to do three jobs, while he prepares his notes.
Finally, he goes to see his mother and stepfather where he is not particularly warmly welcomed. However, the new stepfather, Mr Buenrostro (= Good Face) offers him a studio in Guadalupe, a town thirty-five miles from Albuquerque. He accepts, dumping Enrique without so much as saying goodbye. However, though Mr Buenrostro gives him money, the studio is a shack in a very poor area. The house of the neighbours (husband, wife, ten children and wife’s orphaned sister Ella) is very close to his. Ella, however, becomes his muse and lover and he takes up drawing (finally) to draw her. She was expecting him to whisk her off to Paris. Instead he goes off with a preacher who had initially condemned our hero and Ella for living in sin.
The preacher is the first of the historial characters he will meet – Reies López Tijerina who later became an activist who led a struggle in the 1960s and 1970s to restore New Mexican land grants. However, López Tijerina is an ascetic and our hero becomes like him, barely eating, wearing ragged clothes, suffering and rejecting all gifts or giving them away, to the annoyance of López Tijerina’s wife.
This does not go well and our hero has to drop out and ends up in a mental hospital, where he will meet the fellow inmate and artist Martín Ramírez who our hero considers without talent. He will also briefly meet another fellow inmate, the writer Oscar Zeta Acosta. We know that he will kill him, as mentioned above but it does not happen here. While our hero was living in Guadalupe, he received lots of letters from Enrique. He did not open them but when he finally did, he realises that they are not letters but poems. When Zeta Acosta sees them, he says the they are brilliant. Our hero does not tell him that he himself is not the author.
Oscar Zeta Acosta turns up again, years later, when our hero is living with his mother. Zeta Acosta is now a published author and he wants to go on a wild ride with our hero (thinking he was the author of the poems), with the two of them writing as they went along. The ride involves alcohol (in large quantities), drugs and the opposite sex. However, our hero recovers his drawing ability and draws a lot. Some of these drawings are included in the text. (Montoya is an artist as well as a writer and academic). However, this, too, goes wrong, as we know he kills Zeta Acosta.
Apart from anything else, this is an excellent story. It is the story of a not very heroic hero. He is selfish, not helping his mother who has just lost her husband, given birth and is in huge debt. He is selfish toward poor Enrique. He clearly does have some artistic talent. His drawings of Ella sell like hot cakes and we can judge his later drawings. However, he is an artist reluctant to draw or paint, merely making preparatory notes, while sponging off Enrique.
Later, however, he seems to lose his spirit, as his mother later comments. He clearly has mental health problems, completely misjudging how his father died and seems happier, later in life, doing nothing – playing chess in the mental hospital and watching game shows and soaps when in his mother’s home.
What are we to make of him? Clearly Montoya is mocking the usual conventions by having a hero who is not a hero, a hero who has ambition but no drive to fulfil that ambition and, later, a hero, who essentially enjoys doing nothing. Even when he comes out of his shell – his passionate affair with Ella, his wild ride with Zeta Acosta, it is all led by someone else.
Moreover, it would seem that our narrator is our old friend, the unreliable narrator. Ernie comments on a blatant and presumably deliberate error and the Professor wonders if there are other such errors, to which the answer is that probably there are.
The professor comments Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” that “the nationalists pretend to venerate the capacities of the Argentine mind but want to limit the poetic exercise of that mind to a few impoverished local themes, as if we Argentines could only speak of orillas and estancias and not of the universe.” Are there Chicano themes? Certainly, but can we not also speak of the universe? Is our hero a man who is of the universe, rather than just Chicano. That is certainly a debatable question.
One thing for sure is that has does have mental health problems. Madmen only have themselves, and to be an artist is to be part or maybe entirely mad, and to be a Chicanx artist is to exist on the periphery, the margins, which means we are all madmen dangling at ends of the earth.
First published in 2021 by University of Nevada Press