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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

A native of El Paso, Tex., Rechy was the youngest of five children born to Guadalupe Flores and Roberto Rechy. "It was in the deep of the Depression," Rechy recalled of his childhood. "There was so much poverty and hunger in El Paso and Juarez that we didn't consider ourselves poor because we ate and had a home."

Despite his father's Scottish background, Rechy was raised within the Mexican culture. Besides translating Latin American authors, Rechy has written about Chicanos in many journals and magazines. His imagery is saturated with his Latino background: "The splashy colors of saints in churches; the flowing robes of priests; all the drama of the Catholic Church; of Latino cultures; of Los Angeles, and El Paso," he said.

For some readers, the scenes from that childhood remain the most heartfelt and satisfying in his otherwise somber first novel. "City of Night" came out of a letter Rechy wrote to a friend from New York. After earning a bachelor's degree at Texas Western College, Rechy had joined the Army and had planned to attend graduate classes at Columbia University when he was discharged. Rechy wanted to study with Pearl Buck, so he submitted his early unpublished novel "Pablo!" as a prerequisite. And while Buck demurred, Rechy was accepted into the writing classes of Hiram Haydn, a senior editor at Random House, at the New School for Social Research.

In "Autobiography: A Novel," Rechy writes, "I arrived in New York with only 20 dollars. There I met a merchant marine. He buys me hamburgers and tells me I can make quick money on Times Square--'hustling.' A new word has opened a new world to me. Instead of Columbia, I went to Times Square."

However, Rechy also attended classes at the New School. The friend to whom he wrote about his New York experiences encouraged him to turn the episodes in the letter into short stories, and these stories, published in the Evergreen Review, became the novel.

The unique voice in "City of Night" was hailed by critics and writers including Larry McMurtry, James Baldwin, Herbert Gold and Christopher Isherwood. It quickly catapulted onto the New York Times best-seller list in 1963, remarkable for a first novel, and for its then fledgling publisher, Grove Press.

Today Rechy feels that initial notoriety and fame was double-edged. "I was immediately categorized. I wasn't just a homosexual writer; some critics in the literary establishment insisted I was a hustler who wrote books. To them, I was never a writer who just happened to write about hustling. Even to this day that stigma has remained to haunt my work's true worth."

Further Exploits

Rechy's second novel, "Numbers," did little to discourage that criticism, for it dealt with the further exploits of the unnamed narrator of "City of Night," now called Johnny Rio. The name comes from Marlon Brando's character in "One-Eyed Jacks." Few caught the existential humor of the book's cover which featured Rechy in a typical hustler's stance, smiling seductively.

"Ideally, 'Numbers' should have the tight, urgent control of a story by Edgar Allan Poe. I wanted to write a contemporary horror story about dying," he said. Rechy condemned Johnny Rio at the book's end to remain a shady figure in Griffith Park. And the hustler has never appeared as a central figure in his work again. In a new introduction to "Numbers" (which is still in print along with his other books), Rechy wrote that he resisted the urge to rewrite portions. He is still sufficiently satisfied with it.

That however is not true of his third novel, "This Day's Death." "It's not a good book," he says now. "For all the self-praising of my work, I can also tell when it's not at its best."

A year later in 1970, Rechy's "The Vampires" appeared. His story was based on an true incident--"a time I had spent on a private island with a man, his mistress, his ex-wives. It was about opulent decay and corruption as the guests play out a pageant of confessions and judgment. It was written in technicolor, employing filmic techniques in prose. I was influenced by comic strips and, again, by Poe."

Despite the author's satisfaction with "The Vampires," it barely reached bookstores, for his publisher was going through financial straits then. Without any promotion or advance review copies of the book, Rechy watched helplessly as his book quickly vanished.

In late 1970, Rechy's mother died. He became involved with drugs, especially LSD ("which almost destroyed me") to escape the overwhelming reality of her death. During this self-destructive period, he also flirted with cocaine and heroin. For almost a year, Rechy recounted, his life was shattered. His mother had been the greatest love in his life. Not only had he bought her a large, new house with the money from his first book's success, but he had also returned to El Paso and lived with her during her last years.

Eased Into Recovery

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