About My Life and the Kept Woman: A Memoir
by John Rechy
Grove, 356 pp., $24.00
John Rechy’s latest book is a memoir that reads like a novel, complete with cliff-hanging chapter conclusions, long dialogue scenes, a regularly repeating leitmotif (of a mysterious, glamorous woman), and a clear progression of accumulated effect. Fair enough, since he’s stated that he believes there’s something fictionalized about any memory. And he has dealt with many of the subjects in this book in previous novels. Rechy has said that the autobiographer is the biggest liar for claiming, “This is exactly how it happened.” The biographer is on the next level down of lying for arguing, “I am capable of knowing another’s life.” The most honest writer is the novelist, who says, “This is a lie, a fiction, but I’m going to try like hell to make you believe it’s true.”
Rechy was born Juan Francisco Rechy into a Mexican family in El Paso, Texas, on March 10, 1931. His paternal grandfather was a Scottish pharmacist and physician who had settled in Mexico and then in 1910, for political reasons, emigrated to Texas. John Rechy’s father, Roberto, had been a prominent musician and conductor in Mexico, but in El Paso his fortunes declined. This angry, frustrated father, given to violent rages, is one of the main characters in About My Life.
Roberto’s second wife, Guadalupe Flores, was a long-suffering and very pious woman. Rechy was a mama’s boy and his devotion to Guadalupe has been a major theme in his oeuvre. In his memoir he never gives us much of her background nor does he analyze her. No, he plunges right from the beginning into dramatic scenes—initially, those surrounding his sister Olga’s wedding into a Mexican-American family a notch above the Rechys. That Olga is already visibly pregnant adds to the ire of her father-in-law, known simply as “Señor.” The irate patriarch promises to interrupt the wedding and denounce the participants, but in fact he never does stage such a disruptive scene though he frightens everyone in the church. To add to the drama, his daughter Marisa, the “kept woman” of the title, has vowed to come up from Mexico City to attend the ceremony. Her father has disowned her ever since she began to live openly in sin with one of Mexico’s richest and most powerful men, Augusto de Léon.
This sleek, elegant, fearless woman, Marisa, braving society’s scorn and her own father’s wrath, becomes a fixed point in Rechy’s private cosmology. As he grows up and eventually becomes a male hustler, he summons up Marisa’s courageous, coolly independent image every time he feels under assault by his father or by the law or by other scornful heterosexuals. Marisa, the kept woman, is his guiding spirit, protecting him from the anathemas hurled at him.
At the wedding little Rechy’s fascination with the kept woman helps him to overcome his feelings that his sister is abandoning him by marrying and running off with this …