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Righting a Wrong From Long Ago

Books: Best-selling author John Rechy says he has long been misread--and blames a derisive review that still haunts him. But he's getting a chance to refute it.

September 15, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Above the velvet sofa, in a sunny corner of the Los Feliz garden apartment, Marilyn Monroe lounges life-size in black and white. Her plump lips are in a wet pout, her legs are swathed in black fishnet, her fleshy bosom spills out from behind a strategically placed man's hat.

"Do you see how she beckons into the darkness? Do you see?" John Rechy, Marilyn admirer and misunderstood author, wants so very much for people to "see"--to understand the troubled siren's need to be understood.

And his own.

"From the very start, I have been misread. And I still find myself trying to undo the damage that early misrepresentation caused," he says.

The original "misrepresentation," according to Rechy, was perpetrated by the lofty New York Review of Books. Under the inflammatory heading "Fruit Salad," critic Alfred Chester not only attacked Rechy's first book--the gay classic "City of Night"--but went so far as to question Rechy's very existence.

That was in 1963. Chester has long since died, but his derisive review continues to haunt the author. This fall, along with the publication of his 11th book--"Our Lady of Babylon" (Arcade), a revisionist celebration of the lives of famous fallen women--Rechy will be celebrating publication of his response to that notorious 33-year-old review.

"Three decades ago, I was young, and I did not protest enough," says Rechy, now 62. "Now, I know that when the idiots come down, you will survive [but the pain] never stops. I mean it never, never stops."

In 1988, the offending review--shocking title intact--was reprinted in a New York Review of Books' collection of "representative essays." And in May, the collection was included again in the New York Review's "Selections" offering. Rechy was devastated and decided to renew his efforts to publicly answer "this piece of malice posing as a review."

This summer, Rechy, who now teaches creative writing at USC, received a letter from Review Editor Barbara Epstein, promising to provide space in her prestigious publication for Rechy not only to respond to Chester's remarks about "City of Night," but also to recount how hurtful the effects have been over the years.

In 1963, "City of Night" was an instant bestseller. In sometimes graphic detail, the book describes the urban underworld of gay prostitution--a world at the time inhabited by the young Rechy. A sensuous and often sinister diary of a male hustler on the make from Santa Monica to New Orleans, it set off national speculation about the "true identity" of its author.

Because Rechy stayed underground, purposely avoiding any public promotion of his book, more than one critic suggested that there was no John Rechy, that the name was only a pseudonym for a more famous writer--Tennessee Williams, perhaps, or James Baldwin.

"Impostors began to show up at parties in the Hamptons, on a beach here or there, as Mr. So-and-So's guest on Fire Island. . . . My decision to retain my privacy opened me to ghastly misinterpretation," Rechy recalls. Indeed, the attention "City of Night" first received focused on the subject--the life of a gay man hustling tricks on the street--and not on the book as a piece of art.

"I was viewed as a hustler who had somehow managed to write, instead of as a writer who could write intimately about hustling," Rechy says.

Although the gay underground has played a role in some of Rechy's post-"City of Night" work, he also has written lyrically and movingly about other subjects. When he published "Marilyn's Daughter" (Carroll & Graf) in 1988, the novel built lovingly and insightfully on Rechy's long-time Monroe infatuation. His elegant novel "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez" (Arcade / Little, Brown, 1993) exploited Rechy's Tex-Mex roots and, like "Marilyn's Daughter," explored the world of a beautiful woman.

Despite those books, three plays, and more than a dozen short stories on almost as many subjects, Rechy's work often can't get past the gay label.

Now, with publication of "Our Lady of Babylon," which he describes as "the best book I have ever written," Rechy again writes in the first person. But this time the voice is that of a woman. The writer labeled by the New York Times as "the country's most important author on homosexual life in America" writes now about society's most maligned women--whores.

Rechy uses historical figures such as Eve, Medea, Jezebel, even Mary Magdalene to rewrite the history of female prostitution. Although it received a semisweet review in the Washington Post, it has been embraced by the feminist press, including the Feminist Bookstore News, which calls the novel "a beautifully crafted . . . [and] sensuous mix of myth and dream."

Rechy says he set out five years ago to write a book to "vindicate the falsely accused women of history, to tell the truth of those distorted lives."

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