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John Rechy's intensified reality

Accustomed to causing a stir, the L.A. writer unhesitatingly steps across a boundary into 'a new kind of nonfiction.'

February 17, 2008|Steffie Nelson | Special to The Times

That form, he said, is a new kind of nonfiction. "It's pompous, but what the hell: I like to think literature is moving toward a good new form that has its own reality, along the lines of what I'm doing."

Incidentally, Rechy has no problem with James Frey's claims that "A Million Little Pieces" was true, and he disparages Oprah Winfrey's "public whipping" of the author. "I thought . . . that's really something, how dare she? The book was a success. He changed lives, supposedly, gave people some hope."

Rechy's editor at Grove Press, Amy Hundley, agreed that he is bending the parameters of nonfiction, to a point. "I do think it's a new form, but it also feels classical, in a way. There is something very poetic about it. It's like an ode.

"The thing that I think makes it very much of this moment is the transparency he has at a time when the memoir is very tendentious or argued about in our culture -- the reliability of the narrator. There's been a lot of debate in the past couple of years about the reliability of memory, and I think John is very daring in being very upfront about that."

Throughout the book, Rechy takes us through the process of remembering itself, questioning and adjusting images in his mind, a literary device borrowed from Proust. Describing his introduction to the world of "cruising," a critical moment in his sexual awakening, he wrote, "I stood near, but not within, the muted, slow procession of men, watching intently, studying it all, until, now -- but exactly when? -- I realized I was moving in to join it."

We readers are also privy to the uncovering of a deeper, more painful memory that Rechy has never written about before: his father's brutal reign over the family, and his possible sexual molestation of his 6-year-old son. Even as Rechy puts it into words in "About My Life," "Fondling me? -- perhaps fondling me," he resists the implications. "I must reject this memory," he goes on, "withhold it even now as I set it down, shelter him from the monstrous accusation, disguise it with ambiguity."

But if Rechy seeks to protect his father, a talented composer who fled to El Paso after the Mexican Revolution and forever after lived "in an angry trance of remembered dreams of crushed musical glory," he doesn't spare himself at all.

"That was one thing that I felt when I was writing this book," Rechy said. "It would not be self-protective. I would not withhold certain things that I consider very ugly in my life that I did."

But the ugliness he is referring to has nothing to do with his compulsive sexual appetites (once, Rechy had 27 sexual encounters in a single day) or his inability to reciprocate romantic love until he met his current partner, well into his 50s, although he is certainly holding these things up to the reader's scrutiny. Rechy, who nowadays wears a more sedate variation on what he called his "hustler drag" (jeans, motorcycle boots and leather jacket) was speaking of the subtle ways he betrayed other gay men -- and by extension, himself -- while "upholding my camouflage of tough on the streets." One incident that he still carries with him was a simple interaction in a cafeteria, when two obviously gay men praised Rechy's attractiveness, and Rechy disparaged them to his (straight) companion. "That was ugly and cruel and hypocritical," he said. "In unmasking, part of the book is dealing with hypocrisy."

Simply irresistible

RECHY'S hustler drag (he claims to be the first guy who dared to walk down Hollywood Boulevard without a shirt in the 1950s) was part of what made him and his books so irresistible -- and so important -- to successive generations of gay men. He even had an alter ego, Johnny Rio, who was more than ready for his close-up. "About My Life" contains a number of photos of "Johnny," usually shirtless. Yet Rechy, who still holds a bitter grudge against the New York Review of Books for a review of "City of Night" that was derisively titled "Fruit Salad," does not want to be reduced to the role of sexual provocateur. His editor Hundley sees him as part of "the same tradition as [James] Baldwin and Gore Vidal, coming from the social movements of the '60s and continuing that dissident tradition into the present day. That's where I would put him."

Still, however high his status climbs in the literary canon, it's as a pioneer of a new sexual frankness that Rechy's legacy is most palpable. "It's hard to separate the impact of John's books on me as a writer from their more specific influence on me as a young gay writer," said Michael Cunningham ("The Hours"), who studied with Rechy at USC before attending graduate school in Iowa. "He was one of the first people to write serious, sexy books about gay people. . . . They were literature; they weren't porn, they weren't silly romances, they weren't anything like the few books by and about gay people I had read. I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this: John's books gave a lot of us a certain sense of permission to write about our actual lives."

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