Taming of the Sexual Outlaw : 25 Years After ‘City of Night,’ John Rechy Searches for a New Recognition With a Novel About Monroe
Today I find myself a Texas writer left out of discussion of Texas writers; a Chicano writer omitted from anthologies of Chicano writers; a California writer ignored in books about California. And even though excluded from several homosexual anthologies, I am still known as “the homosexual writer . . . “
If I died tomorrow, I would know that I have written as formidable a body of work as that of any other writer of my generation.
--John Rechy in his unpublished
“Autobiography: A Novel”
Standing in his small Los Feliz apartment kitchen, John Rechy--dressed in almost typical Texas garb (blue jeans and boots) with a touch of California (a white body builder’s tank top)--poured fresh brewed “Texas iced tea” with lime wedges. In the tiny breakfast nook, he has framed collages of Marilyn Monroe and Ed Corney, the famed body-builder, facing each other on opposite walls.
Earlier, he had confessed that his daily physical workout was just as important to him as his daily writing regimen. His pride in his tanned, well-toned body effectively belies his 54 years. In his writing room, his workout bench is next to his typewriter. The walls are plastered with posters of old Steve Reeves movies.
Nearby, several cardboard cartons stacked below a Roy Lichtenstein graphic in the living room overflowed with copies of Rechy’s celebrated first novel, “City of Night.” Now considered a modern classic, that book was bold and controversial when it first appeared in 1963. Its autobiographical narrator was a young male hustler, whose exploits unfolded against a backdrop of tawdry streets, flashy bars and one-night sexual encounters in the homosexual underground of urban America.
The plain, dark cover of the 25th anniversary edition of “City of Night” stood in sharp contrast to the glossy, movie poster style of copies of his new book also amassed on the floor. “Marilyn’s Daughter” is a novel about a fictional daughter of Monroe fathered by Robert Kennedy.
Barely in bookstores, “Marilyn’s Daughter” has been praised. The book ". . . has the innocent trashiness, the vulnerable screwloose fascination, of Monroe herself” said the Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle review called Rechy “a major American novelist.” His publisher, Carroll & Graf, issued an initial printing of 75,000 and is promoting the book with ads in book sections in Los Angeles and New York. And there have been movie offers.
It is a change for the author of novels including “The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary.” Rechy’s 1977 novel, “Rushes” describing a night at a sadomasochistic leather bar and orgy room marked Rechy’s last homosexual novel. Soon afterwards, the AIDS epidemic invaded the world he had described.
“As with all my other books, I just didn’t aim ‘Rushes’ at the gay community. In a way, we were reaching a dead end. There were no new intellectual frontiers to move into. And although I had been a champion of sexual liberation, I had seen some of the bludgeoning of it, some of the dangers that were occurring. Some people say that ‘Rushes’ was the book that ends that time, but AIDS still hadn’t emerged,” he reflected.
“I’ve written a lot about AIDS for magazines. It seems to me that out of this major tragedy we homosexuals have discovered an enormous capacity for courage. Whenever I think of the thugs who call us sissies, it doubly enrages me. Right now our people are showing more courage than anyone else. We’re literally living with death. I’ve had three of my most talented student writers die from AIDS.
“I feel we have to do everything necessary to combat that disease. A lot of misinformation and misunderstanding is still getting out. I’ve also become terribly concerned that at this particular time, our artists cannot be ghettoized because our voices have to be heard in every area since they’re very distinct voices and they’ve become voices of survival.”
A few critics have questioned Rechy’s motivation for commercial success, charging that “Marilyn’s Daughter” is at best a typical summer book, and at worst another literary exploitation of Marilyn Monroe.
Rechy is quick to defend his work. “It really isn’t a summer book. It’s an extravagant literary creation. It does deal with how one finally cannot run away from one’s self. I have a bit of empathy with that because I too set out to remake myself.”
Teaches at USC
“I had my creative writing class here yesterday,” Rechy said to explain the display of his books in the apartment. Rechy teaches creative writing, film and literature classes at USC. “I’m a good teacher,” he said. Several promising writers and good novels have come out of his classes. Two published this year include “Friend of the Family” by Natalie Bates and “Nothing in Common” by Barbara Bottner. “I have great respect for creativity and how it’s nurtured,” he said. “I’m very careful to deal only with creative people, so I select my students.”
A native of El Paso, Tex., Rechy was the youngest of five children born to Guadalupe Flores and Roberto Rechy. “It was in the deep of the Depression,” Rechy recalled of his childhood. “There was so much poverty and hunger in El Paso and Juarez that we didn’t consider ourselves poor because we ate and had a home.”
Despite his father’s Scottish background, Rechy was raised within the Mexican culture. Besides translating Latin American authors, Rechy has written about Chicanos in many journals and magazines. His imagery is saturated with his Latino background: “The splashy colors of saints in churches; the flowing robes of priests; all the drama of the Catholic Church; of Latino cultures; of Los Angeles, and El Paso,” he said.
For some readers, the scenes from that childhood remain the most heartfelt and satisfying in his otherwise somber first novel. “City of Night” came out of a letter Rechy wrote to a friend from New York. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Texas Western College, Rechy had joined the Army and had planned to attend graduate classes at Columbia University when he was discharged. Rechy wanted to study with Pearl Buck, so he submitted his early unpublished novel “Pablo!” as a prerequisite. And while Buck demurred, Rechy was accepted into the writing classes of Hiram Haydn, a senior editor at Random House, at the New School for Social Research.
In “Autobiography: A Novel,” Rechy writes, “I arrived in New York with only 20 dollars. There I met a merchant marine. He buys me hamburgers and tells me I can make quick money on Times Square--'hustling.’ A new word has opened a new world to me. Instead of Columbia, I went to Times Square.”
However, Rechy also attended classes at the New School. The friend to whom he wrote about his New York experiences encouraged him to turn the episodes in the letter into short stories, and these stories, published in the Evergreen Review, became the novel.
The unique voice in “City of Night” was hailed by critics and writers including Larry McMurtry, James Baldwin, Herbert Gold and Christopher Isherwood. It quickly catapulted onto the New York Times best-seller list in 1963, remarkable for a first novel, and for its then fledgling publisher, Grove Press.
Today Rechy feels that initial notoriety and fame was double-edged. “I was immediately categorized. I wasn’t just a homosexual writer; some critics in the literary establishment insisted I was a hustler who wrote books. To them, I was never a writer who just happened to write about hustling. Even to this day that stigma has remained to haunt my work’s true worth.”
Rechy’s second novel, “Numbers,” did little to discourage that criticism, for it dealt with the further exploits of the unnamed narrator of “City of Night,” now called Johnny Rio. The name comes from Marlon Brando’s character in “One-Eyed Jacks.” Few caught the existential humor of the book’s cover which featured Rechy in a typical hustler’s stance, smiling seductively.
“Ideally, ‘Numbers’ should have the tight, urgent control of a story by Edgar Allan Poe. I wanted to write a contemporary horror story about dying,” he said. Rechy condemned Johnny Rio at the book’s end to remain a shady figure in Griffith Park. And the hustler has never appeared as a central figure in his work again. In a new introduction to “Numbers” (which is still in print along with his other books), Rechy wrote that he resisted the urge to rewrite portions. He is still sufficiently satisfied with it.
That however is not true of his third novel, “This Day’s Death.” “It’s not a good book,” he says now. “For all the self-praising of my work, I can also tell when it’s not at its best.”
A year later in 1970, Rechy’s “The Vampires” appeared. His story was based on an true incident--"a time I had spent on a private island with a man, his mistress, his ex-wives. It was about opulent decay and corruption as the guests play out a pageant of confessions and judgment. It was written in technicolor, employing filmic techniques in prose. I was influenced by comic strips and, again, by Poe.”
Despite the author’s satisfaction with “The Vampires,” it barely reached bookstores, for his publisher was going through financial straits then. Without any promotion or advance review copies of the book, Rechy watched helplessly as his book quickly vanished.
In late 1970, Rechy’s mother died. He became involved with drugs, especially LSD (“which almost destroyed me”) to escape the overwhelming reality of her death. During this self-destructive period, he also flirted with cocaine and heroin. For almost a year, Rechy recounted, his life was shattered. His mother had been the greatest love in his life. Not only had he bought her a large, new house with the money from his first book’s success, but he had also returned to El Paso and lived with her during her last years.
Eased Into Recovery
Finally, friends referred him to a psychiatrist who eased him into recovery. He returned to body building in earnest to heal his physical self. “The doctor told me a very funny thing. He said that he knew of people destroyed by narcissism, but he had never thought one could be saved by it.”
The catharsis also resulted in his fifth novel, “The Fourth Angel,” written in 1972. “In that book I converted myself into a teen-ager who cannot cope with his mother’s death. I added invented situations; I was still keeping away the reality of my mother’s death and my involvement in drugs.”
Still smarting from the disservice done to “The Vampires,” he found a new publisher, but sales were just as abysmal. “The Fourth Angel” was virtually ignored.
In 1973, Rechy moved permanently to Los Angeles. In “Autobiography: A Novel,” he writes: “I was broke. Ten years after the huge success of ‘City of Night’ had made me rich and famous, I was back in Los Angeles, hustling the same streets that first book had described; anonymous again.”
After his return to the streets, Rechy wrote his most controversial book, “The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary.” It was a detailed account of three days and nights of anonymous sex as his semi-autobiographical narrator, “Jim” roamed L.A’s underground homosexual arena.
The book sold out its first printing, and Dell, a mainstream paperback publisher, put out a mass market edition. As a result, Rechy emerged a spokesperson of sorts, speaking about his then-militant stance that “public sex is revolution, courageous, righteous, defiant revolution.” With the attention thrust upon him then, he began to lecture and teach at colleges and universities, and even People magazine did a profile of him.
Rechy’s novel “Bodies and Souls” appeared in 1984. This apocalyptic view of Los Angeles garnered Rechy’s best reviews since “City of Night.” The Los Angeles Times, which nominated Rechy for its annual Book Awards for the “Best Body of Work” called it a “movable feast,” while the New York Times said it was “a scarred beauty like Los Angeles.”
Rechy remains a private man. “I don’t go to parties, I reject invitations. I have more leisure time now, but my work is more exciting. Yet part of that contentment comes from another source. My life is fuller because of a close association with a young man. It’s been 10 years. I don’t like to mention his name, but I have enormous respect and affection for him. But it also has to do with my certainty as an artist, now.”
“It’s getting harder” to be a writer or artist, Rechy said. “Some of the best writing that I’m reading is not going to get published. I have one novel written in my workshop that I would hold up to any first novel, but I can’t even find a publisher or agent. The romantic notion that the artist will triumph at the end is nonsense.”
Some Are Saved by ‘Laughing’
And has all the rage and anger gone out of John Rechy, the outlaw voice? He offered a comparison. “The earlier films of Luis Bunuel are filled with anger and the depths of despair. In his later films he reaches the point of black humor. I reached that point in ‘Rushes’ where the only alternatives are dying or laughing. Some people kill themselves and others are saved by laughing at the idiocy.
“I still think of myself as an outlaw; my outlaw voice is very necessary. But, my basic black vision is still there. The only change is that now I want to live.”
Although Rechy’s new book is barely in bookstores, he is at work on his next one. “It deals with the biblical whore of Babylon, hence the title, ‘Our Lady of Babylon.’ She takes the incarnation of all the great women in history. Part of it takes place in heaven and the rebellion of the angels. Lucifer is a hero; he leads Adam and Eve in a parade out of heaven. It has a steamy love scene between Adam and Eve, the first time sex ever occurs in the garden.”
‘I Have Thousands of Pages’
Asked when readers will finally get a look at his “Autobiography: A Novel,” Rechy said, “I’ve been writing it ever since ‘City of Night’ came out. I have thousands of pages, notes, photographs. I would like it to be my last book . . . but that won’t be for a long time.
“I wish I could let my books speak for me,” he said, “that they would get the attention that I want them to have. And I could continue to live my private life; I’ve always cherished my anonymity. As I get older, it becomes more important to see in my time, that what I think is as good a voice as any of my generation to be heard. I want to be evaluated with the best of them, as the serious artist that I am. Whether they consider that I stand there or not, I want to be allowed to be a contender.”