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This time, Rechy takes on 'Tom Jones'

November 07, 2003|Charles Casillo | Special to The Times

It's not that John Rechy resents the success that his groundbreaking novel "City of Night" brought him 40 years ago. It's just that he's done a lot of writing since then, and he regrets that his first book continues to outshine all his subsequent achievements.

"I've written much better books," he says.

"I often say that if I had died after 'City of Night' came out, there would have been a whole mythology: 'If he had only lived, what would he have produced?' I suspect that some people were sort of disappointed that I continued -- there's that meanness, believe me. Instead I continue to make the legend, and that's better."

He's written 12 other books, in fact, since the widely acclaimed novelization of his experiences as a male prostitute hustling his way from New York to Los Angeles, written with a poetic prose and a journalist's eye for documentation. With many of his subsequent titles -- among them "The Sexual Outlaw," "The Coming of the Night," "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez" -- Rechy has further explored the lives of people on the fringe.

His latest, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens" (Grove Press), is loosely based on Henry Fielding's 18th century classic "The History of Tom Jones." Rechy was intrigued by the challenge of taking the novel -- involving the exaggerated adventures of a lovable rascal -- and adapting the form to a contemporary tale.

"I love the freedom of picaresque novels," Rechy says on a hot afternoon in Los Feliz, "the impossible twists and turns, the surprises, the pace, the gallery of rogues and wistful souls. Most modern novels aren't equipped to deal with that sort of thing. But I saw no reason why I couldn't come up with a story with that kind of rambunctious energy and coincidences, because life is filled with coincidences."

The resulting book has the sweep of a sexy, modern fable for adults. In it, a charming naif, Lyle Clemens -- a cowboy who has never ridden a horse -- leaves his Texas home on a voyage of self-discovery and finds himself drifting through a world of ghastly Hollywood schemers. Rechy portrays Lyle as a succulent scrap of meat, dodging the traps set by a ravenous town hungry to eat and discard.

"Famous satirists, like Swift and Luis Bunuel, who have influenced me, wrote harsh satires in order to laugh at the horrors around them," Rechy says. "You reach a point where the sorrows of the world are so unavoidable that your only defense is to laugh -- even if bitterly."

Outspoken and provocative, Rechy may have much to be bitter about. He has often been reduced by critics to a series of labels: sexual renegade, outlaw writer, narcissist -- although this last is undeniably accurate. "Each night I kiss myself in the mirror and say, 'I love you,' " Rechy wrote in his unpublished sequel to the autobiographical "City of Night."

At age 72, he is provocative and enigmatic. He continues to revel in his muscular body, a product of daily workouts, and he still dons his standard garb of tight-fitting T-shirt and jeans. Yet he also exhibits an ageless, almost vulnerable quality that belies his resilient core -- paradoxes, perhaps, of a master hustler.

He protects his physical image as seriously as any movie star -- he even likes to have a say in which photos get used for accompanying publicity. Not surprising. Since the beginning of his career, Rechy has fed on his sexual appeal as much as critical praise, a reason, he feels for some of the hostility directed toward him through the years.

"I think all would be different if I had become a mess," he muses. "If I turned up to a book signing not wearing a tight shirt, I think people would forgive me. But I don't need forgiveness at that price."

Of course, his narcissism is part of his persona. "I like to satirize enormous egos because it affronts people so much." That's one of the things that has made him so controversial. "I'm attracted to beauty," he confesses, "and I like to write about attractive people. I've been criticized for that. Yet attractive people are also very vulnerable and in need of defense."

Rechy has always mixed his personal experiences, his vivid imagination, his passion for Hollywood films and his love of literature -- all elements he combines seamlessly in "Lyle Clemens." Although the book is clearly an homage to "Tom Jones," readers familiar with Rechy's background will also find striking similarities between the author and his creation.

The character Lyle leaves Texas in search of himself, just as Rechy left his El Paso home. "I don't even know who I really am anymore," Lyle tells his mother, "and I'm trying to understand." And, like Rechy, he ends up in Los Angeles.

The overwhelmingly seductive Lyle -- adored by every high school girl -- has a voluptuous female teacher come on to him, just as Rechy had. And, like the young Rechy, Lyle is studious rather than athletic, but his desirability acts as a buffer. In the novel, Rechy takes the opportunity to defend himself:

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