Reviewed by Zach Czaia
It won't take long for the reader of Maceo Montoya's first novel, The Scoundrel and the Optimist, to realize that the author is writing against the grain of much of modern fiction. His preoccupations -- first love, the relationship between father and son, the redemption of a "lost soul" -- seem to come from a different era. Readers accustomed to novels more self-conscious about their form and structure might even be tempted to dismiss Montoya's first book as simply old-fashioned, out of touch. This would be a mistake.
Certainly Montoya's plot owes much to the great storytellers of the novel's tradition, especially its romance variation. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a writer like Dickens warming to the novel's hero, the "optimist" Edmund, a thirteen-year-old boy who has fallen in love with a girl from his village and sets out to win her heart through the music of guitar. The classic obstacles of class, rival "suitor," and, ultimately, distance (her family moves from Mexico to the U.S.) intervene to challenge the hero's love.
Though this is admittedly a fairly conventional representation of a boy's first love, it is placed, with surprising humor, in the context of Edmund's disastrous family situation. Edmund's father, Filastro -- the "scoundrel" of the novel -- is in the early pages relentlessly unsympathetic, a drunk and abusive man so cruel to his children that all but Edmund (the youngest) flee Mexico for the United States in order to escape his daily round of beatings. Montoya alternates narration between Edmund and Filastro for the first half of the book until a catastrophe brings father and son together: when Filastro gets mixed up in a drug deal gone wrong, he is tortured within an inch of his life, then left for dead on the side of the road. The experience leaves him incapacitated for months, during which time Edmund cares for him, and the father experiences a slow but sure moral regeneration.
Montoya's facility with the movements of scene and plot, though doubtless informed by attentive reading of "old-fashioned" writers of fiction, probably owes even more to his background in the visual arts. The son of influential artist/activist Malaquias Montoya, Maceo has followed in his father's footsteps both in his devotion to the craft of painting and drawing as well as in his commitment to represent those without a voice -- victims of torture, poverty, and political injustice. Looking through Maceo's online gallery, one is struck by his insistence on rendering the human face, and his ability to find stories in its many expressions. The very title of a 2003 collection of twenty-three linked paintings -- The Dreams of Juan Jose and other stories of Knights Landing -- suggests the fruitfulness of an ongoing dialogue between vision and narrative, a dialogue at the core of the young artist's fiction.
Consider this moment late in the novel, in which Filastro and Edmund are trying to cross the Mexican-U.S. border (Filastro to ask forgiveness of the children he has wronged, Edmund to win the heart of the girl he loves), but have gotten lost in the desert:
[Filastro] stepped forward and Edmund moved with him. They traveled ten yards before Filastro's legs gave way. Edmund reached for him, but his father's weight was too much and he fell along with him. Filastro groaned in pain. Edmund had broken his father's fall, but now he was being crushed underneath him. He had to push and slide, push and slide. He felt his shirt rise up and the scrape of rocks and dirt, the prick of a spiky weed against his bare back.
The way Montoya narrates the scene is unavoidably visual, a tableau we could easily imagine "translated" into one of his paintings. But there is an emotional undercurrent here as well: Filastro has at this point realized he is dying, and is heartbroken that he will not be able to ask his sons and daughters his forgiveness, nor show them he has changed. The one son who has seen his transformation is now being crushed under his weight and might even die with him. It's a powerful scene, and one made more so by Montoya's attention to sensory detail.
Unfortunately, Montoya often dissipates the dramatic charge of scenes like the above by plunging headlong into bland and predictable dialogue. For example, an utterly cliched conversation between father and son about Edmund's mother ensues immediately after the scene narrated above:
[Edmund:] "If you never loved her, then why do you want her back?"
"Because I need her. I've been with her for more than half my life. That is a kind of love."
"I don't understand."
"Someday you will. Only these last couple of months have I thought about it. Before, never."
This kind of unevenness, fortunately, is not a damning flaw. Actually, considering the ambition of the novel -- to represent a truly good human being and his transformative effect on another person -- it is striking how often the book succeeds. Montoya has managed to paint a picture here of a reality that many of his contemporaries have run in fear from, the simple spectacle of human love. That he has even made the attempt is reason enough to read this work, and await with eagerness his continued creative maturation.
Books mentioned in this post