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The Making of John Rechy

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 other man. In Rechy’s books, feelings are always close to the surface, and bruised pride, desperate possessiveness, wild elation and wilder despair, lust and chagrin are usual emotions in his universe. And shame. Shame may be the strongest emotion of all. Shame at his family’s fall in the world, shame at his own homosexuality, at least as he experiences it in the years before gay liberation, though often shame takes the form of an alienating distance from other men.

Rechy has always struck his readers as a lonely, remote figure—and his memoir locates the origins of this social distance. As a Mexican who “passed” for “Anglo,” he often had to hear jokes cracked at the expense of other Mexicans. There is a scene in this book when Rechy is invited to a lavish Texas ranch by two unsuspecting classmates (they think he is as “white” as they are). The lady of the ranch tells the young men that she can’t eat if the Mexican servants lurk about and watch her. The lady, “Miz” Crawford, says, “I love their food, but I can’t eat when they’re in the room with me, and that’s the Lord’s truth.”

Rechy, who has kept his ethnicity secret from them till now, stands up and says, “If you can’t eat when Mexicans are in the room with you, ma’am, then I don’t want to be here to ruin your dinner.” As a pale, Anglo-looking Mexican and as a very masculine-appearing homosexual (who as a youngster dated a handful of women and even had sex with them), Rechy was often invited as an ally into the enemy camp. Since he did his coming out in the late 1940s and the 1950s, in the midst of the McCarthy years, under the eye of a sternly macho Latino father, and long before the advent of gay liberation, Rechy had an unusually hard time assuming his identity. As a hustler he sold himself as “straight trade,” that is, as someone who pretended to be heterosexual but was willing to be fellated for money.

In Rechy’s novels most homosexuals are divided between the woodenly “butch” and the theatrically “femme,” between gay men posing as macho tough guys and flamboyant queens, a recasting of the familiar gender dimorphism of our society into still more extravagant terms. Interestingly, the gay books of this period—Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) with its campy, bitchy queens in hot pursuit of servicemen; Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers (written during World War II but published in the US only in 1963) with its transvestite-prostitute hero, Divine; and Hubert Selby Jr.’s stories in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)—are all about low life, the world of petty criminals, pickpockets, prostitutes, jailbirds, and freaks. These books could be widely read by a hip audience precisely because their very exoticism made them fascinating but unthreatening, a kind of travel literature about the unseemly and seedy, a walk on the wild side. Later, when serious gay writers would picture middle-class gay life (I’m thinking of Alan Hollinghurst in The Spell or Andrew Holleran in Dancer from the Dance), their seemingly more conventional work was actually much more unsettling. The characters might include the man in the next office rather than the transvestite hooker on the waterfront, and readers found this proximity disturbing.

Although Rechy has written about his family several times, never before has he explored so thoroughly his painful adolescence. Early on in About My Life he tells us that even though he was considered very good-looking he had no friends. A classmate who stared at him all the time told him:

You’re like a ghost boy…. You don’t talk to anyone. You seem to be studying others around you, judging others. You act as if you’re not where we are.

Part of the problem, no doubt, was that Rechy’s father railed at the whole family in a constant rage but singled out his pretty-boy son for special scorn. He thought little John was not sufficiently athletic and was too attached to his mother. He should go out and play rather than staying at home alone, writing stories. The father was bitter because he now had to work as a hospital orderly but recalled his glory days by “conducting” an imaginary orchestra when his favorite opera, Carmen, was being broadcast on the radio. Rechy and his siblings and mother would have to sit attentively as his father waved a baton in the air.

Rechy has never been embarrassed by his own narcissism. In his new book he recounts how when he became a gangly thirteen-year-old he prayed: “Please, Blessed Mother Mary, make me handsome again.” He describes one of his female high school teachers noticing his restored good looks and promptly seducing him; I don’t doubt the seduction happened but it feels false, the sort of violent sexual appetite that gay writers often ascribe to women (think of Tennesee Williams’s voracious women or Coleman Dowell’s). A girl at school also flirts with him; it turns out that both of them are passing as “Anglos” and she is as Hispanic as he is—Isabel Franklin is actually Alicia Gonzalez—and just as ashamed to be Mexican. When Rechy invites an Anglo girl to the prom her mother shouts, “Over my dead body will my daughter go out with a Mexican.” He stops to wonder only how she knew.

If complex feelings about his heritage are one part of Rechy’s story, another aspect has to do with the sexuality he obviously radiates and feels both excited about and ashamed of. An older bohemian couple in El Paso pick him up at the laundry where he works and invite him to dinner. The wife retires as soon as the meal is over, leaving the teenager to her husband—except Rechy rebels during Mr. Kippan’s reading of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and, disgusted by the bawdy descriptions, runs out into the night.

Early on Rechy showed signs of his literary vocation. With Barbara, a bright girl at school, he set about translating Lorca’s play Blood Wedding. He edited the high school magazine and wrote an essay for it, “Modern Art: A Shattered Mirror.” He began a novel called Pablo! Perhaps a breakthrough in the fulfillment of his cultural aspirations was his encounter with Wilford Leach, a theater director. Leach was witty, well known, interested in Rechy’s writing—and obviously in love with Rechy himself.

All Rechy’s early experiments in sex and art were put on hold when he was drafted into the army to serve in the Korean War. One day while he was proving he could do more sit-ups than anyone else in his unit, a message arrived that his father had just died. When he reported back to duty he was sent not to Korea but to Frankfurt. After his term was up, the newly discharged Rechy headed for New York. He planned to attend school using GI Bill money, but on 42nd Street he began hustling—accumulating the experiences that would finally end up in his famous first novel, City of Night.

When I was twenty I met John Rechy’s character Miss Destiny in the pages of Big Table, a controversial magazine whose first issue had been suppressed as pornography (it contained ten episodes from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch). At that time, in 1960, Richy was becoming known by publishing chapters of his book-to-be, City of Night, in the Evergreen Review and in Big Table, which had broken away over censorship issues from the Chicago Review. I was a student at the University of Michigan and was immersed in Lolita, which had come out four years earlier, and in Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet, which was just then being published. I preferred smooth European fiction to American hipster lit. In the summer of 1960 I met Charles Burch, an ex–jazz musician ten years older than I, on the Oak Street Beach in Chicago, near my mother’s apartment (it turned out he lived in the same apartment building). He was an ad man and became my first lover. The epitome of Fifties coolness, he was a published poet and had battled drug addiction; his fetish book was Alexander Trocchi’s hymn to heroin, Cain’s Book, just published.

Charles sneered at my reverence for Nabokov, whom he considered too literary and “square.” Rechy he admired because he was obviously “hip.” City of Night would eventually be published by Grove, in 1963. In those days, when literary matters were hotly debated, the Evergreen Review/Grove Press list (which included Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Alexander Trocchi) aroused either contempt or admiration. John Rechy came in for this blanket response as a Grove author; in the pages of The New York Review he was scorned and lambasted by Alfred Chester (a more “literary” gay writer) in the June 1, 1963, issue. The review began:

This is the worst confection yet devised by the masterminds behind the Grove épater-la-post-office Machine. So fabricated is it that, despite the adorable photograph on the rear of the dust jacket, I can hardly believe there is a real John Rechy—and if there is, he would probably be the first to agree that there isn’t—for City of Night reads like the unTrue Confessions of a Male Whore as told to Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Thomas Wolfe, Fanny Hurst and Dr. Franzblau. It is pastiche from the word go.

Witty as this is, the review invents a genre (the Grove novel) and then finds this particular case of it inferior—surely an indefensible critical practice. Nor does it make much sense to invoke the elaborate “iron whimsy” of Genet (as Sartre called it) in the same breath as the neoclassical coolness of Capote or the logorrhea of Thomas Wolfe. There is a similarity between one of Rechy’s best characters, the Professor, and Djuna Barnes’s Dr. O’Connor, one of the great talkers in American fiction, but I’d wager that both Barnes and Rechy based their characters on different real-life “originals.” Indeed Rechy’s biographer, Charles Casillo, asserts that the Professor was based on a well-known (but unnamed) writer whom Rechy knew in Los Angeles (in City of Night he lives in New York). And Djuna Barnes based her Dr. O’Connor on an Irish abortionist in Paris named Daniel A. Mahoney. Obviously gay life, then as now, included some spectacular monologists.

I met John Rechy in the late 1970s. “Gay fiction” had been invented recently (if by that one means unapologetic novels written by gays primarily for gay readers and consequently devoid of the earlier strategy of a let-me-be-your-Virgil-through-this-underworld narrator). Everyone in the newly established gay lit scene in New York wanted to meet Rechy, since he was clearly a sort of founding father. He gave a reading in one of the small legitimate theaters on West 42nd Street and I introduced him. We were impressed that he still hustled (in his mid-forties) and that he worked out so diligently and rolled back his sleeves to expose his huge biceps.

At the same time Rechy had a lively sense of humor about himself. When I had dinner with him in Los Angeles a few years later he showed me his elegant apartment in Los Feliz near cruisy Griffith Park and explained that he had to tell his “johns” that the apartment belonged to a friend; early on, as he explains in his memoir, he had been rejected by a hustling client for admitting he read Colette. He had learned his lesson and knew that johns wanted tough guys who couldn’t dance or make quiche or read French lady novelists. With a laugh Rechy also told me that one night he’d greased up his torso to catch the headlights on Santa Monica Boulevard. As he was standing out on the curbside displaying himself to potential customers he noticed a young man circling back again and again in his car. Finally the young man rolled down his window and said, “Good evening, Professor Rechy, out for an evening stroll?” It was one of his creative writing students from the University of Southern California.

Rechy in person is as funny and frank about his own narcissism as he is in his books. I had dinner at Musso & Frank’s with him and his beautiful student Melodie Johnson Howe and the two of them argued over who was the more attractive and who turned more male heads. Given that she was a movie star who had worked extensively in TV and film in the 1960s and 1970s and he was a man twelve years older (in his fifties by that point), the debate was a bit strange, but Rechy has a truly obdurate egotism.

Although City of Night remains Rechy’s best-known book (new acquaintances invariably tell him, “I’ve read your novel”), he has written many others. Numbers, which came out in 1967, reminds us that in the bad old good old days a gay man’s life was considered over at age thirty (I can remember when friends would stage a mock funeral for anyone passing that dreaded boundary). In Numbers an “aging” hustler in his late twenties, Johnny Rio, after living away from Los Angeles for years, returns and needs to prove to himself that he can still sell his body on the open market. Johnny is admittedly “extremely vain” though he also has a “harrowing sensitivity about age.” Luckily, he looks to be in his early twenties and has even had to prove his age in bars. The title, Numbers, works in several ways. It refers to the age, waist size, height, weight, and penis size so important to the male prostitute’s desirability. In gay slang a “number” is an erotic contender (as in “He’s a real number”). And finally Johnny Rio is embarked on a project of selling himself to the highest number of bidders in a short time—he’s playing a numbers game.

In The Fourth Angel (1972) Rechy returned to memories of his adolescence in El Paso though he set it in the late Sixties, the period when he wrote this novel, his least successful. As we learn in About My Life, one of Rechy’s favorite places in El Paso as a teenager was Mount Cristo Rey with its fifty-foot-tall statue of Christ blessing the city below. A very similar mountain provides the setting for the melodramatic end of The Fourth Angel, in which two young male members of a gang (or “youngmen,” as Rechy calls them) are forced by Shell, a bossy teenage girl, to have sex with each other—or rather one boy rapes another because the girl orders him to do so.

The whole story reads like a gay man’s fantasy version of Nicholas Ray’s 1955 James Dean vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause (a film that already had a strong gay subtheme). In Rechy’s book it’s as if he is trying to solve a riddle: How can two men have sex with each other and still remain straight (and thus desirable)? Genet had tackled this problem in his last novel, Querelle (1947), and James Baldwin had taken it up in Giovanni’s Room (1956). By the time Rechy got around to the theme in 1972, it already felt old-fashioned, though he tries to make his book seem fresh by having the characters take LSD and refer to each other as “the dude” (as in “Shell’s trying to help the dude!”)

Three years earlier Rechy’s mother had died and he had tried to console himself by doing lots of drugs. His recent novels—This Day’s Death (1969) and The Vampires (1971)—had been largely ignored by reviewers. By the late Seventies Rechy was back in the public eye with The Sexual Outlaw (1977), a “documentary” novel about three days and three nights of anonymous sex. Two years later, just two years before the onslaught of AIDS, Rechy wrote Rushes, a novel about a descent into a waterfront backroom bar obviously based on the notorious Mineshaft in New York. This book is marred by its constant references to Catholic ritual; it brings to mind many novels of the late twentieth century that invoke the prestige of religion without subscribing to its doctrines. It doesn’t really help a chapter about the leather scene to have it titled “Bless this sacrifice prepared for the glory of Your holy name.”

Sometimes Rechy has explored his own experience by casting it into new imaginative terms. His 1991 novel, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, for instance, could be read as what would have happened if his mother had lived in Los Angeles and not been burdened with her difficult husband. Not that Amalia’s life is easy—in fact the sympathy that Rechy invests in his character often feels like “displaced” love for his downtrodden mother.

Rechy has never equaled in later novels the dynamism and freshness of City of Night. In that groundbreaking book he was inventing himself as a macho loner for sale and was observing a whole new array of characters: drag queens, the still-beautiful boy living dangerously beyond his sell-by date, the guilt-ridden married men eaten up by desire and remorse, the vice cops and fag hags—they’re all there, many of them for the first time in American literature. As a genre the novel, as its name suggests, thrives on novelty. It’s as if every time a writer opens up an entire new aspect of experience the page begins to vibrate. City of Night is in some ways a road novel like Kerouac’s. The language is hip, and sometimes excessive, but the energy of the whole long prose poem is undeniable. Like Kerouac himself, Rechy had discovered that Americans had no need of Surrealism; for them, their country itself was the au-delà, more exotic and frightening than any fantasy. The last pages of his memoir recount how Rechy—rather reluctantly, almost in spite of himself—came to write this classic American novel.

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