John Rechy, his skin still beautifully burnished and brown when I saw him last year, his forearms still powerful, his words unfurling with precise irony and humor, is a writer I’ve been thinking about in the evening while looking at the horizon just after the sun has hesitated in the western sky. I was only 18 when I read “City of Night,” and Rechy’s fictional view of Los Angeles was one of three that made me believe I too might write about the places in Southern California I hadn’t seen in print. (The other two, Wanda Coleman and Carolyn See, we lost last year, and their books I turn to as well.)
Rechy had actually written his first novel before “City of Night,” and last year the Los Angeles Review of Books published a piece of it. “Pablo!” he called it, “probably the bleakest book I ever wrote, and I wrote it when I was 18.” He sent it to Grove — a New York publishing house he admired — cold, not admitting his age, and it was rejected. He rewrote it, sent it again, and was rejected. He went then into the military, serving in the 101st Airborne Division, and did not want to stay in the place where he was born.
That was El Paso. Rechy grew up impoverished, with a furiously abusive father born in Mexico who claimed multiple European heritages and pasts and a beautiful mother who loved her children but couldn’t protect them from that violence. Like so many writers, Rechy discovered himself through books and film. (His first real attempt at fiction, written when he was 14, was to defend the beautiful Marie Antoinette.) In an interview, he joked, “Every writer has to say, ‘We were really poor!’ ” Rechy’s native city was the crossroads of America and Mexico, of race and class.
Rechy’s art has always been about power in various incarnations.
He went to New York, tried to take a writing course with Pearl S. Buck, was rejected, and, not diminished in ambition, took out an ad in the New York Times as an ex-Army man who’d written a novel, seeking employment. He lived in a building called the Casbah and answered the hallway phone for an interview after the ad was published. He arrived at an elegant address, and the “editor” appeared in a bathrobe, clearly interested not in the novel but the writer. To escape, Rechy, then 21, told the “editor” he was 17.
“Pablo!” was never published as a book, but “City of Night” was bought by Grove, published when Rechy was 31, and remains an iconic look at the life of certain men in various locations. Here is his L.A.: “Southern California, which is shaped somewhat like a coffin, is a giant sanatorium with flowers where people come to be cured of life itself in whatever way … This is the last stop before the sun gives up and sinks down into the black, black ocean and night – usually starless here – comes down.” The first-person narrator heads to Main Street: “Instantly, I recognize the vagrant youngmen dotting those places: the motorcyclists without bikes, the cowboys without horses, awol servicemen or on leave. …”
Rechy’s art has always been about power in various incarnations: the power of class and race, of the body and the intellectual, of the way strength and violence work in American landscapes as varied as a dirt yard in El Paso to an apartment in New York to the streets of Los Angeles. But his newest novel, “After the Blue Hour,” just published by Grove, is set in a completely different landscape — a remote, privately owned island, amid the manipulative swirls of power in one assemblage of people making cynical fun of being a family. The first-person narrator in “After the Blue Hour” is named John Rechy, is 24 years old in 1960, when the novel is set, a serviceman so recently discharged from the Army that arriving on the island where he’s been invited by Paul Wagner, he carries only a military duffel and wears uniform khakis.
In eerie echo, Paul wears the khakis of a man who vacations on a private island, and the duality of these men is played out over the course of many dusks and nights filled with intellectual combat and then increasingly graphic and violent sexual gamesmanship. Even Stanty, Paul’s entitled and disdainful 14-year-old son, engages in instant competition upon meeting the narrator, asking whether Rechy’s real name is John or Juan. “ ‘I didn’t change my name … a grammar-school teacher couldn’t pronounce it — it’s Spanish. Mexican,’ I clarified. ‘She changed it to John.’ Actually, Johnny, though I didn’t tell him.”
I marvel that, having just turned 85, he continues to write with such elegance and lyricism, descending into raw scenes of human longing and violence.
“Why didn’t you change it back, then? Was it because you don’t look like a Mexican and didn’t want to be?” the boy says, with meanness, and their own battles begin, eventually ending in physical and sexual confrontation as well. Constantinople, the boy’s real name, is the son of one of two wealthy women whose family money has allowed Paul, a hustler himself, to become a scion of nothing, father and son whose lives stand in eerie echo to current one-percenters on actual and mythical islands upon which humans like the narrator are amusement and conquest.
The other resident is Sonya, a tanned, powerless beauty actually called “Beauty” by Paul, who bought her after a runway show. These four people engage in battle at a particular time on their inland island, far from the sea: “ ‘It’s not an hour at all, just a few seconds of blue light between dusk and night,’ I said. … ‘They say everything is both clearest and most obscure – a light that challenges perception, revealing and hiding.’ ”
Rechy, the writer, has since the earliest in his long career given readers that hour, the dusk and twilight and melding when people change their natures, and I marvel that, having just turned 85, he continues to write with such elegance and lyricism, descending into raw scenes of human longing and violence. I return to the early pages of “City of Night”: “When I was about eight years old, my father taught me this: He would say to me: ‘Give me a thousand,’ and I knew this meant I should hop on his lap and then he would fondle me — intimately — and he’d give me a penny, sometimes a nickel. At times when his friends — old gray men — came to our house, they would ask for ‘a thousand.’ And I would jump on their laps too. And I would get nickel after nickel. …”
On the island, in the dark, Paul has waited for days to reveal what he wants from the narrator John Rechy, tanned dark, poor, absolutely his equal at quoting from memory literature and philosophy, and the denouement is terrifying not because it is unexpected but because Paul has determined that he will retain the ultimate power. Paul’s misogyny, racism and cruelty obviously come from childhood violence as well, but his entire being is one Rechy the writer has been portraying in his fiction for all these years, as well as anyone writes about human frailty and desire: “Power, of course, man, sexual power. You wanted power over willing victims,” Paul says to Rechy, the hustler, the observer, the narrator of this story and all the others given to readers by a mind so singularly attuned to the layers and landscapes of American life.
Last year, Rechy said, upon receiving an award, “Autobiographers are the biggest liars in the constellation of liars.” He refers to fiction as “both factual and fraudulent,” but I look out into the California dusk and think he is always writing about how we negotiate with each other, how we maintain the facades of triumph, and how his language remains lapidary and hypnotic, never fading in its own control.
Susan Straight’s most recent novels are “A Million Nightingales,” “Take One Candle Light a Room” and “Between Heaven and Here” — the Rio Seco Trilogy. Her memoir will be published this fall.
By John Rechy
Grove Atlantic: 224 pp., $25