Still digging human dignity

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Dig: John Rechy is living proof that one of the best weapons for fighting hatred is pure love. “Beneath the Skin,” organized by decade, is a collection of 46 articles written from 1958 to 2004. They range in topic from a description of Rechy’s hometown, El Paso, to juvenile detention, the Vietnam War, Liberace, Gore Vidal, Sept. 11 and way, way beyond. The writing is so lush, so present, so alive with a kind of pure faith in “our real and abundant capacity for youth and love” that his primary subject matter -- hatred, censorship and prejudice in its many forms -- seems to melt on the pages like the tears of killers kneeling before the Virgin Mary. Every so often the author interrupts with a footnote bemoaning his exuberant use of words (back in those fabulous ‘60s) like “dig,” “pad,” “fairy” or “birds,” but they jar Rechy more than the reader, and some of them even beg loudly for retro reentry (along with the hate-melting love).

“Mexicangreaser, Mexicangreaser,” the students used to yell at Rechy in his Texas grammar school. “I thought, well, yes, my mother did do an awful lot of frying but we never put any grease in our hair, and so it bothered me.” He fought his first round with what he calls “the temptation to pass” for white and won, with the help of that bounteous mother-love, part Mexican culture and part Rechy, that has fed him throughout his life. His first bestselling novel, “City of Night,” a 1963 expose of the world of male prostitution in Los Angeles, made him a literary star in the West and in the exotic salons of New York and East Hampton. It became the “gay novel” taught at tony universities. Rechy bought his mother a house and took up weightlifting. He spent years torn between the streets and the towers of ivory culture. Los Angeles seemed a middle ground.

“You came here to find the wish fulfilled in 3-D among the flowers,” he wrote of Pershing Square, that “jungle of Expression” turned jungle of “Repression.” Of Los Angeles’ Skid Row: “rooms squashed in by lonesomeness where for a buck a night you die that night easily until checkout time -- and you can face the day again in that endless Resurrection.”

And from Los Angeles, he wrote for the Nation, the New York Times and the Advocate. And when he got homesick for the Texas sky, he’d go out to Griffith Park Observatory, where you could see an “imitation Texas Sky,” where the “half-womb opened magically and carried you into the real Sky.” That’s vintage Rechy: a childlike, handclapping, foot-stomping delight: “You go to Disneyland, and you walk through an umbilical tunnel (dig) and you enter the mouth of a whale (Dig) and (Dig!) pass through replicas of nursery dreams!”


There’s Rechy the cultural crusader, emerging in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to write about the treatment of homosexuals in the press and as he experienced it personally (a 1963 review of “City of Night” in the New York Review of Books was titled “Fruit Salad”), taking on the Anita Bryants and allegations that gays are all child molesters, and Hollywood for its trite and offensive depictions of gay life in the movies “Cruising,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “American Gigolo” and “Birds of a Feather.” “I have seen ‘queer bashers’ with chains ready to lash,” he wrote in 1979 in an effort to stop the filming of “Cruising,” which he believed would encourage more violence against gays. “I have seen the faces of homosexuals branded by lead pipes by hate-pocked ‘straight’ attackers.” “What’s offensive about ‘Birds of a Feather,’ ” he wrote, “is the deliberate courtship of prejudice. The heterosexual audience laughs, thus rendering the objects of their prejudice acceptable when ludicrous.”

In the 1990s, particularly in his essay “The Outlaw Sensibility,” Rechy took on the “sophistry that banishes fairness,” literary ghettos, cultural ghettos and political correctness. In 1992, he wrote that the designation “Los Angeles writer” had become a negative qualifier, indicative of “a persistent irritant that refuses to go away ... a euphemism for ‘minor.’ ”

He deplores awards for best “women writers” or best “Hispanic writers,” arguing that to “applaud such meager tokens of recognition as ‘success’ is to accept and contribute to segregation.” He dreams of substituting “trojan” for the word “gay” to inspire more respect. Political correctness, he wrote in “The Outlaw Sensibility,” “increasingly threatens the individual voice. The demand is often made on the artist, especially the writer, to avoid aspects considered unflattering to one’s own group, no matter that such aspects exist and require scrutiny.”

Can you hear it in these phrases? That insistence on human dignity? Rechy has such faith that high culture, in film and literature particularly, will respect and even guard that dignity. It is a cherished ideal, often unnamed, in each of these essays, and he seems to shiver with disbelief, more than judgment, when it is violated -- like a child stunned when a spoiled friend mistreats his marvelous toys.


Many of the more recent essays -- on Isherwood, Liberace, Sept. 11, Tom Cruise, the art of writing -- have a distance from their subjects that the earlier essays did not. Astonishingly, after almost five decades on the street and in the tower, there is still no bitterness. The author seems to take high culture less seriously than he did when he was younger, and to expect less from the institutions of American politics and culture than he once did. But he does not succumb to cynicism or even a genteel jadedness. An essay on “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” a bestseller in England and America in 2004, gives him as much joy as writing about Pershing Square and Disneyland once did.

Rechy leaves a trail of broken rules, not least the “terrible three” rules he encourages all young writers to break: “Show, Don’t Tell”; “Write About What You Know”; and “Always Have a Sympathetic Character for the Reader to Relate To.” There is, he says in a postscript, “only one rule of writing, and that is this: There are no Rules of Writing.” *