This time, Rechy takes on 'Tom Jones'

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:

"Lyle would have been a 'geek' -- an outcast, the odd one, the one who didn't go out for sports, who didn't 'hang out,' and was considered 'weird' ... except for this powerful factor: He was so handsome and sexy that girls giggled and nudged each other when he appeared ...."

Then, of course, there's the mother figure. As in many of Rechy's novels, mother love is central to the story. In the book, Lyle's father abandons his mother before the child is born and Lyle grows up obsessed with easing his mother's anguish.

Rechy's relationship with his mother was intense and complicated. His father was distant and emotionally abusive; Rechy found himself desperately trying to relieve his mother's pain, living with her on and off until she died when he was 40.

So far, the critical reception for "Lyle Clemens" has been good. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "a comic tour de force and, at the same time, a truly heartfelt book."

A good thing, because Rechy can get defensive about his literary reputation. He's notorious for writing letters to reviewers critiquing their critiques. He once wrote to Gore Vidal complaining about Vidal's praise for a writer's nasty but witty review of Rechy's first book.

"Dear Rechy," Vidal wrote back, "never take these things seriously."

But he does. "That's what I have," Rechy says. "That's the most important thing in my life. My creation. My art. I steadfastly uphold my artistry, and when it is being assaulted recklessly, then I take action."

He once said a writer who negatively reviewed one of his books had "penis envy." "That review was intentionally malicious," Rechy explains. "I have been the object of really nasty comments that have nothing to do with my literature. There was no way I could be courteous with someone who is capable of that. You have to answer in kind, and I did."

Has Rechy's bad boy personality mellowed in the years since "City of Night" first appeared in 1963?

"I would say I haven't changed," he says, "except by the nature of maturity. I'm more intelligent than I was. More realistic. But the same attitudes have been refined. A friend was at my reading the other night, and he said, 'You're still as angry at things as you were before.' But my rage is at all the injustices we see. That's what satire does. A lot of what I'm laughing at in my book is awful."

If Rechy is as fiery as ever, he does, at least, seem more settled. He has taught creative writing at various colleges on and off for three decades and has offered higher level courses in his home for 22 years. He's also starting a new chapter in his life, moving in with his partner of more than 20 years, film producer Michael Snyder, to a five-bedroom house in the hills under the Hollywood sign.

Some of Rechy's serenity also seems to stem from the way his current novel is being received. "I think that the reaction to this book has been pure," he says. "The literary aspects are being looked at now, separated from the scandalous life that most people associate with me. I feel now I'm being viewed more and more as the writer that I am."

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Charles Casillo is the author of the biography "Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy" (Alyson Publications).

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