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Tom Jones in spurs

The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, A Novel; John Rechy; Grove Press: 324 pp., $24

October 05, 2003|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of the upcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

John Rechy, rather like Henry Miller, is best known for his depiction of raw and shocking sexuality and yet best loved by some readers for his expression of a passion so sublime that it approaches a state of rapture. He began in 1963 with "City of Night," a book about the sordid life of a gay street hustler, but he also gave us, for example, "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez," the tale of a poor middle-aged Mexican American woman who is redeemed when she's granted a marvelous vision.

Rechy's much anticipated new novel, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," is a potent compound of both sex and rapture. Lyle is a beautiful and beguiling young man who starts out as the child of star-crossed lovers in a sleepy Texas town and ends up as "the Mystery Cowboy," an enigmatic figure who materializes among the lost souls on Hollywood Boulevard. This remarkable story, as Rechy tells it, is sly, smart, sexy and laugh-out-loud funny, but it is also tinged with sorrow and ultimately elevated into the realm of magic.

Lyle is born in 1982 in Rio Escondido, a Texas backwater whose polarities are marked by the Billy the Kid Museum and the Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Concern. His mother, Sylvia Love, is a disappointed Chicana beauty queen and his probable father, dubbed "Lyle Clemens the First," is a handsome but shiftless cowboy who makes love with his boots on: "He'd take off his 'walkin' boots," Rechy explains, "then all his clothes, and then he'd put on the 'love boots.' " But Lyle's father abandons his mother before he is born, and Lyle the Second grows up with some very strange ideas about what it means to love and be loved. "So marvelously strange," exults one of the women who falls under his spell, "so wonderfully strange."

Rechy is regarded as a groundbreaking gay novelist and appropriately so, but the steamiest sex scenes in his new novel are purely (and hotly) heterosexual. The bully at school may call him a "fag," but Lyle discovers that he possesses an uncanny power over women, whether young or old, innocent or worldly. "Lyle detected the possibility of sex," writes Rechy, "almost as if it were a vapor he breathed." When he is wooed by an ardent young woman named Maria, Lyle gallantly offers to convert to Catholicism and marry her before availing himself of her offer to surrender her virginity to him, but he needn't have. "I'm a progressive woman," she says. "You don't have to become a Catholic first. Let's make love now."

Above all, Rechy writes intimately and lovingly about women; the female characters in "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens" are its real glory. At the book's heart are Lyle's mother and maternal grandmother, one an alcoholic flirt and the other a religious fanatic, who struggle against each other literally unto death and even beyond the grave. Equally compelling and considerably more enchanting are the visionary Clarita, whom we see as a young woman running away from Pancho Villa only to run into the Virgin of Guadalupe; Rose, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who dutifully deflowers Lyle and then finds herself smitten by him; and Maria, the girl who may or may not be Lyle's one true love.

So powerful is Lyle's uncalculating and unwitting allure, in fact, that he stirs up various kinds of passion in virtually everyone who beholds him. A band of crooked evangelists recruits him to perform as "the Lord's Cowboy" -- Lyle has inherited his grandmother's gift of speaking in tongues -- and they take him from Texas to Hollywood, where he catches the eye of (among others) a husband-and-wife team of adult-film producers and a fading actress looking to leverage herself into a come-back role in a remake of "Valley of the Dolls." All of this contributes to his pain and sorrow but also his ultimate enlightenment.

"See the face of God?" asks a man in a loincloth on the Venice boardwalk. Lyle pays him the $20 he demands and the old man hands him a picture: "tangles of lines on a piece of paper, a harsh black X across it." Moments later, however, the sight of the setting sun on the Pacific horizon strikes Lyle as a revelation. "Was there anything else this amazing?" he muses. "Beyond that expanse of water and sky, what? Mysterious, beautiful, secret. Like so much of what he was encountering in this city of astonishment."

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