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Taming of the Sexual Outlaw : 25 Years After 'City of Night,' John Rechy Searches for a New Recognition With a Novel About Monroe

September 07, 1988|GREGG BARRIOS | Barrios is a Los Angeles writer

Today I find myself a Texas writer left out of discussion of Texas writers; a Chicano writer omitted from anthologies of Chicano writers; a California writer ignored in books about California. And even though excluded from several homosexual anthologies, I am still known as "the homosexual writer . . . "

If I died tomorrow, I would know that I have written as formidable a body of work as that of any other writer of my generation.

--John Rechy in his unpublished

"Autobiography: A Novel"

Standing in his small Los Feliz apartment kitchen, John Rechy--dressed in almost typical Texas garb (blue jeans and boots) with a touch of California (a white body builder's tank top)--poured fresh brewed "Texas iced tea" with lime wedges. In the tiny breakfast nook, he has framed collages of Marilyn Monroe and Ed Corney, the famed body-builder, facing each other on opposite walls.

Daily Workouts

Earlier, he had confessed that his daily physical workout was just as important to him as his daily writing regimen. His pride in his tanned, well-toned body effectively belies his 54 years. In his writing room, his workout bench is next to his typewriter. The walls are plastered with posters of old Steve Reeves movies.

Nearby, several cardboard cartons stacked below a Roy Lichtenstein graphic in the living room overflowed with copies of Rechy's celebrated first novel, "City of Night." Now considered a modern classic, that book was bold and controversial when it first appeared in 1963. Its autobiographical narrator was a young male hustler, whose exploits unfolded against a backdrop of tawdry streets, flashy bars and one-night sexual encounters in the homosexual underground of urban America.

The plain, dark cover of the 25th anniversary edition of "City of Night" stood in sharp contrast to the glossy, movie poster style of copies of his new book also amassed on the floor. "Marilyn's Daughter" is a novel about a fictional daughter of Monroe fathered by Robert Kennedy.

Barely in bookstores, "Marilyn's Daughter" has been praised. The book ". . . has the innocent trashiness, the vulnerable screwloose fascination, of Monroe herself" said the Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle review called Rechy "a major American novelist." His publisher, Carroll & Graf, issued an initial printing of 75,000 and is promoting the book with ads in book sections in Los Angeles and New York. And there have been movie offers.

It is a change for the author of novels including "The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary." Rechy's 1977 novel, "Rushes" describing a night at a sadomasochistic leather bar and orgy room marked Rechy's last homosexual novel. Soon afterwards, the AIDS epidemic invaded the world he had described.

"As with all my other books, I just didn't aim 'Rushes' at the gay community. In a way, we were reaching a dead end. There were no new intellectual frontiers to move into. And although I had been a champion of sexual liberation, I had seen some of the bludgeoning of it, some of the dangers that were occurring. Some people say that 'Rushes' was the book that ends that time, but AIDS still hadn't emerged," he reflected.

"I've written a lot about AIDS for magazines. It seems to me that out of this major tragedy we homosexuals have discovered an enormous capacity for courage. Whenever I think of the thugs who call us sissies, it doubly enrages me. Right now our people are showing more courage than anyone else. We're literally living with death. I've had three of my most talented student writers die from AIDS.

"I feel we have to do everything necessary to combat that disease. A lot of misinformation and misunderstanding is still getting out. I've also become terribly concerned that at this particular time, our artists cannot be ghettoized because our voices have to be heard in every area since they're very distinct voices and they've become voices of survival."

A few critics have questioned Rechy's motivation for commercial success, charging that "Marilyn's Daughter" is at best a typical summer book, and at worst another literary exploitation of Marilyn Monroe.

Rechy is quick to defend his work. "It really isn't a summer book. It's an extravagant literary creation. It does deal with how one finally cannot run away from one's self. I have a bit of empathy with that because I too set out to remake myself."

Teaches at USC

"I had my creative writing class here yesterday," Rechy said to explain the display of his books in the apartment. Rechy teaches creative writing, film and literature classes at USC. "I'm a good teacher," he said. Several promising writers and good novels have come out of his classes. Two published this year include "Friend of the Family" by Natalie Bates and "Nothing in Common" by Barbara Bottner. "I have great respect for creativity and how it's nurtured," he said. "I'm very careful to deal only with creative people, so I select my students."

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