“Steely-eyed Realism”: On Maceo Montoya’s “Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces”

December 30, 2021   •   By Bidisha Banerjee

Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces

Maceo Montoya

IN MACEO MONTOYA’S tragicomic bildungsroman Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces, an unnamed Chicano narrator, born into relative privilege in rural New Mexico yet enamored of “steely-eyed realism,” tries and fails to make art in the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s. Instead of drawing, he writes lengthy notes about the drawings he wants to make; he is prone to epileptic fits; his mother considers having him committed. Across this span of years transit many male “prophets” — figures of the Chicano movement both prominent and forgotten.

The conceit of this narrative (with a separate sheaf of illustrations) is that it was found by the narrator’s nephew, Ernie, who passed it on to a breezy Chicana public historian named Lorraine. She suggests the narrator was a “Chicano Forrest Gump.” Lorraine passes the text to Professor Samuel Pizarro, a failed novelist whose pedantic annotations and quibbles with his predecessors lend a Kinbotean charm to the book. Montoya, a professor of Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis, is adept at the metatextual channeling of voices, having written novels (The Scoundrel and the Optimist [2010], The Deportation of Wopper Barraza [2014]), an illustrated memoir (Letters to the Poet From his Brother [2014]), and an illustrated nonfiction work, Chicano Movement for Beginners (2016), in which the author combats “historical amnesia” by reckoning with a movement that the author’s own family helped to shape. Indeed, Pizarro’s footnotes alone provide an impassioned education in Chicanx studies.

With regard to the narrator’s desire to emulate French realist painters, Pizarro says, “To paraphrase the great Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the ever-present dilemma of the Chicanx artist is to not know what tradition they rightfully inherit.” Montoya attempts to structure the book around that very subject, which haunts the adventures of his purportedly unreliable narrator. The commentators, at least, accuse him being unreliable, though they cannot correct the claims they distrust or fill in the gaps they perceive. And sometimes even the narrator engages with the unreliability of his narrative.

Montoya is an astute observer of the ways that creative work advances in fits and starts, with “god-like” revelations being followed by lengthy blocks. Thanks to his fine grasp of humor and pathos, he manages to make his narrator’s passion resonant, despite the protagonist’s grandiose self-absorption. The attention to historical detail, too, is relatively uncharted territory for Chicanx literature, which took off in the 1970s with the work of Rudolfo Anaya. Like Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum (1959), Montoya’s narrator eschews middle-class expectations and refuses to get a job; like Matzerath, he composes his life story while in an institution; but unlike Matzerath, he refrains from making lewd comments about women. And like his heroes, the 19th-century French realists, the narrator aspires to paint “stone breakers, grain reapers, gleaners, spinners, laundresses, nymphs,” and to travel to Paris. But Montoya’s narrator only makes it to Los Angeles, where he inadvertently provokes a conflict between sailors and zoot-suiters. He leaves that “godforsaken city” after 12 hours, right on the cusp of a creative rebirth.

Back in New Mexico, he lives for five years with his creative patron and best friend, Enrique Hurtado, a newspaper boy whose eyelashes the narrator compares to a heron’s wingspan. Without having read Enrique’s poetry, the narrator dubs him the “Baudelaire in Albuquerque.” In Montoya’s skillful account, their homoerotic relationship, told from the perspective of a narrator who steers clear of any overt acknowledgment of homosexual desire, becomes tragic and haunting. (Enrique’s unopened letters after the two part, for instance, come to bear great weight in the plot.)

Enrique proceeds to work three menial jobs to support the narrator, who enrolls in a correspondence course in drawing taught by the alleged grandson of Jean-François Millet, via the comically named Salon des Refusés Art Academy. Trying to encourage the narrator, the petit-fils tells him that “Michelangelo used to make a hundred sketches of a man’s calf muscle before ultimately covering it with a robe. Then he would destroy the drawings by stomping on them in a mud pit. Does the fact that those drawings no longer exist mean those drawings never existed? No, of course not.”

To complete the first assignment for the correspondence course, the narrator reluctantly goes into a billiard hall and starts drawing an unconscious drunk. The bartender, who has never met a real artist, wants to see the drawing, leading to a great description of the incremental process by which a few lines on a page become much more. Gradually, the hall fills with patrons, all of whom are charmed by the thought that the narrator is painting them. When the time comes to “show” his drawing, the narrator instead reads his lengthy, ekphrastic descriptions of the drawing he plans to make. The patrons are so impressed that they take up a collection and give him a substantial advance. Cowed by the crowd’s enthusiasm, the narrator only hides.

At long last, he admits that the strain of making art for a patron is too great. After five years of tireless patronage, with no masterpieces forthcoming, Enrique asks if the narrator might be willing to seek patronage elsewhere. The narrator is offended, but eventually does turn to his stepfather, who sets him up with a studio in a shantytown for factory workers in the desert.

Here, the narrator’s creative block is finally broken, even though the loud children in a neighboring house ruin his hard-earned solitude. Their aunt, who cares for them, is prone to sleepwalking and often falls asleep at a window. For the first time, the narrator now has a model who will stay motionless for hours, night after night. He draws erotic pictures of her until he is found out by her brother-in-law, who pretends to be upset but who really wants to become a dealer in sexy art. The narrator takes umbrage, only to be assaulted by his neighbor. When he comes to, Ella, the woman in question, has moved in. Eventually, they commence a romantic relationship that is the most fulfilling period of his life. And he draws her day after day. Yet he is oblivious to the fact that Ella dreams of traveling the world.

Enter Reies López Tijerina, a traveling preacher, who publicly denounces the two of them for living in sin. Ella stands up to him and manages to make the huge crowd disperse by insisting that the preacher knows nothing of her life and suffering. In the chaos, she and the narrator have a massive fight and part ways. Ella leaves with the preacher. Compelled by the preacher’s oratory, the narrator follows in their wake and finds the preacher, his wife, and his infant son. (Ella has left again. She sold the narrator’s pictures for the money to make a new life for herself.) The narrator walks from New Mexico through Arizona and into California with the family, eating less and less, becoming more and more haggard. Eventually, they separate and the narrator ends up in DeWitt State Hospital, a mental institution. Meanwhile, in the footnotes, the scholar Pizarro tells us that Tijerina is a little-known historical figure who founded La Alianza, “which sought to reclaim Hispano-American land stripped away by whites after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. His tactics included marches, citizen arrests, and taking over Kit Carson National Forest and declaring it a sovereign state.” Pizarro points out Tijerina’s “anti-Semitism, sexual abuse, and a messianic complex.”

Lorraine, the historian who passed the text on to Pizarro, has a feminist take on Ella, whom she dubs “a prophet in her own right. […] [S]he sure as hell won’t stand to be someone’s muse. I wonder whether her name was really Ella or if this dude was simply referring to her as ella, ‘she.’ Makes my blood boil.” (This criticism recalls the central female character in Montoya’s second novel, who strives to overcome the limitations of her name: “Mija,” or “My daughter.”) For Pizarro, however, “Chicanx scholarship, which places queerness and feminism at its core, is at a crossroads. […] Do we ‘allow,’” he asks, “for that larger context — it wasn’t just Chicano men who were sexist and homophobic, but society as a whole, as it continues to be — or do we sweep these men into the dustbin of history?”

During his 20 years at DeWitt, the narrator meets the self-taught outsider artist Martín Ramírez (also based on a historical figure), whose work sells for six figures. In this compelling chapter, the narrator has to choose whether to stay in the institution or get out by disavowing his creative dreams. Over and over, the phrase “steely-eyed realism” appears in comic form. That’s what the narrator wants to achieve, but, given his competition with Ramírez, he never draws anything and even refuses to sit at the arts and crafts table.

In the last chapter, the narrator is released from DeWitt into the care of his mother, who is finally supportive. But the narrator no longer makes art. The mental institution has turned him into a couch potato content to watch TV all day. This chapter also offers a revisionist take on the untimely demise of Oscar Acosta (the relatively unknown founder of “gonzo journalism” and the inspiration for Hunter S. Thompson’s companion in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [1971]) whom the narrator met while institutionalized. Suffering from writer’s block himself, Acosta (who disappeared in real life) insists that the narrator accompany him on a road trip. This trip, and the support of his mother, prompt the narrator to create his masterpiece in a rest home during his final days.

Pizarro points out how much of an outsider the narrator is, how far removed he is from the political concerns that animated the Chicanx movement. By choosing such an insular narrator, Montoya effectively dramatizes the contrast between the narrator’s fascination with France and Acosta’s reclaiming of indigenous and Spanish-language heritage. Yet, by choosing not to engage with female-identified revolutionaries (e.g., Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Dolores Huerta, or their unknown counterparts) who helped define the movement, this book, by itself, cannot resolve the Chicanx artist’s dilemma that Sáenz identified of not knowing what tradition they rightfully inherit.

This not-knowingness is a potentially fertile missed opportunity. Montoya seems focused, in this work at least, on the inheritance of the modern Western novel (Pizarro alludes to Dostoyevsky and Joyce and is eager for Chicanx literature to appear on the world stage). But, as Amitav Ghosh has argued, that inheritance may be increasingly irrelevant. Even though the narrator critiques middle-class treats like bubble baths in order to extol what Ghosh (quoting Updike) would call his “individual moral adventure,” it’s the isolated routine of the rest home that enables his realist breakthrough. Had Montoya also chosen to inherit the uncanny pre-modern stories of how humans and nonhumans coexisted, before nature and culture were separated, and of the land ethic based in reciprocity that is part of the Chicanx tradition, he could have been even more adventurous in his engagement with the positive legacy of collectivism.

Still, by leaving this legacy in the white space, Montoya forces his readers to reckon with it on their own. And the tensions between the world stage and political awakening are palpable in the fictionalization of Acosta’s untimely demise, which I will not reveal here. By foregrounding the challenges that Chicanx artists, writers, and scholars have faced, Montoya signals to those on the margin that legitimate work doesn’t have to conform to mainstream expectations or explain their culture. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to write a story and has recoiled from the blank page or, like our narrator, from the idea that writing itself is inferior to visual art. Montoya dramatizes the agonies and ecstasies of the creative process, written and visual, with quiet hilarity and, well, steely-eyed realism. The illustrations feel empowering because they demystify the process of drawing by showing preliminary thumbnail sketches next to fully worked-out drawings. Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces, like all of Montoya’s books, helps us all to better understand the ways in which Chicanx history is American history.

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Bidisha Banerjee is an embodied leadership coach based in unceded Chochenyo-Ohlone territory (Oakland) and the author of Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga. (Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2020).