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The Mastery and Genius of John Rechy

BODIES AND SOULS: A Novel By John Rechy. Grove Press: 432 pp., $14 paper

THE MIRACULOUS DAY OF AMALIA GOMEZ: A Novel By John Rechy. Grove Press: 224 pp., $13 paper

November 18, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is a contributing writer to the Book Review and, most recently, the author of "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People" (Viking)

Some of John Rechy's admiring readers salute him as one of the inventors of the "gay novel." Others place him in the first rank of novelists whose work is set in Los Angeles--"the most spiritual and physical of cities," as Rechy puts it, "a profound city which drew to it the various bright and dark energies of the country." A few of his books are so deeply rooted in his own upbringing in a family of Mexican and Scottish origin that they are required reading in courses on Chicano literature at Harvard. Rechy fits comfortably into each of these categories, of course, but he ultimately transcends them all.

Rechy defined his unique place in American letters with his first novel, "City of Night," and a subsequent work of nonfiction, "The Sexual Outlaw," both of which draw on his own early experiences as a street hustler. But he has written 10 novels so far, and two of the less celebrated but no less accomplished ones (regrettably out of print)--"Bodies and Souls" and "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez"--have been reissued by Grove Press in handsome new editions, each graced with a preface that was put to paper by Rechy only four months ago.

The novels speak for themselves, of course, and they speak in the rich, provocative, sometimes erotic and sometimes reverential language that is Rechy's glory. To be sure, he shows us the sizzle and spark of the most forbidden varieties of sexual adventure, both heterosexual and homosexual, but he also shows that sex can be a source of redemption for the men and women in his novels. When Rechy describes the climactic scene in the making of a porn flick as "the ultimate in sexual grace," he is only half ironic.

"Bodies and Souls," for example, is soaked with religious imagery and vocabulary, and not just when it comes to the TV evangelist called Sister Woman and her ravings about "the fireworks of God!" Each of the men and women in his book--troubled and yearning, aching with neediness and prone to excesses of sex and violence--is drawn to Los Angeles for the same reason that the blind and the lame are drawn to Lourdes. They may think that they are seeking fame and fortune, strength and beauty, romantic and sexual fulfillment in L.A., but Rechy knows better.

"Mr. Universal perfects his body in an attempt to stave off death," he explains in his introduction to "Bodies and Souls," in which he describes various characters in the book. "[T]he pornographic actress longs for a purer pornography....[T]he tattoo of a naked Christ on the Chicano punker may be sacrilegious, but it expresses the punker's longing for salvation."

Rechy suggests that even the most benighted souls in the seediest byways of Los Angeles live their lives in daily expectation of either a miracle or an apocalypse. At the outset of "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez," for example, Amalia awakens in her Hollywood bungalow to see "a large silver cross in the otherwise clear sky," and she is full of excitement and expectation: "Would there be a dazzling white radiance in which the Blessed Mother would bask?" By the end of the day, however, she has been literally scourged by her own loved ones, and she finds herself in a shopping center shooting incident that Rechy presents as a postmodern version of the Pieta.

"Another shot hurled out of his gun, and Amalia saw a beautiful spatter of blue shards that glinted and gleamed like shooting stars as they fell on splotches of red like huge blossoms, red roses," he writes. "And then she knew with startling clarity that by blessing this dying man she would be blessing away something in her whose death she welcomed."

Rechy may have been marked as a "gay writer" because he has written so compellingly about the experiences of characters who happen to be gay, but "Bodies and Souls" and "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez" remind us that to label him at all is to miss the point of his writing. No novelist, male or female, straight or gay, could have written about Amalia Gomez--a twice-divorced, middle-aged, Mexican American woman with a live-in boyfriend, a son in prison and an adolescent son and daughter at acute risk of sex and drugs and gangs--with greater intimacy or empathy than Rechy demonstrates here.

Rechy is, above all, a powerful and gifted storyteller whose heart is clearly far too big to confine itself to any single subset of humanity, and he brings the same compassion to every character on whom his eye falls. "Bodies and Souls" may focus on three star-crossed young vagabonds on an ill-fated odyssey through Southern California--two young men, Orin and Jesse, and one young woman called Lisa, all of them enmeshed in an elaborate sexual dance--but it is only in the final scene of apocalyptic freeway carnage that we are allowed to see the real linkages among the threesome and the random cast of characters, men and women, straights and gays, whom we have met along the way.

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