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John Rechy, a prophet of liberation

John Rechy, a prophet of liberation
John Rechy, at home in Los Angeles, is the charismatic 87-year-old writer whose "City of Night," published in 1963, is a landmark of gay literature. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a hot fall day. The bright blue sky, cloudless and indifferent, holds an air of volatility, as if the whole city is on edge, waiting for something terrifying and brilliant to happen. I have come to the home of author John Rechy. He lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet section of Encino. Getting out of my car, I pass rows of green and black trash bins, standing like sentinels along the street. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, with neatly trimmed lawns and well-kept houses. A pair of gardeners in workshirts and khaki pants sit under a tree.

Buenas tardes,” they say.

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Hola,” I reply back. “Con permiso.”

Rechy and his mate Michael (he bristles at the term “partner” or “husband”) meet me at the door. Rechy’s handshake — like his writing, like his very life — is exact, tough, but tender at the same time. His stare is focused, nothing gets past him, and when he gives you that look, you want to linger there with him. At 87, he is still producing work.

“After the Blue Hour” was published last February by Grove Press. “The novel is unflinching in its candor even as its events have a tantalizing aura of mystery,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly; Kirkus Review called it “[b]eautifully written.” The novel won the 2018 Lambda Literary award for best gay fiction. He followed this up with “Pablo!,” a novel written years before his seminal 1963 breakthrough “City of Night,” which he published when he was in his thirties. Steeped in Mayan lore, “Pablo!” explores the often-fractured nature of identity and the inescapable human desire to reach out, to connect, and to belong to someone, or something, bigger than oneself.

It’s hard to imagine that the same writer who penned a book like “Pablo!” so many years ago also wrote works often banned for their graphic representations of “deviant” lifestyles. He admits that re-reading “Pablo!” offers him an opportunity to ponder his conscious decision as a writer to explore form even back then. “That’s very important to me. Structure and form and style,” he says. “There was always this terrible misreading of ‘City of Night.’ It’s a book that is consciously structured and fitted to the lived realities of the characters. This is only now being recognized.”

John Rechy in the 1970s
John Rechy in the 1970s (Collection of John Rechy)

As a graduate student of writing at UC Irvine, I struggled to find my own voice, struggled to find a language with which to tell the kinds of stories I knew that were in me to tell. Then I audited a course where the professor had assigned “City of Night.” I read the book in one sitting. It was like nothing I’d ever encountered.

Years prior, I had lived in the heart of Hollywood, not far from the streets Rechy’s “Youngman” had roamed. My evenings were a blur of expensive cocktails at trendy bars and random encounters with anonymous men in dark alleys and seedy clubs. I had been utterly reckless and irresponsible with my health, my money and my sex life. I recall crying once I finished “City of Night” and thinking to myself, there I am. Right there. That want, that desire, that fevered lust had been mine too. And for the first time, here was an author giving me permission to be both a gay writer and a Chicano writer.

Rechy’s work resisted definitions, cast these aside, complicated the categories I’d come to believe were a necessity when it came to publishing. His very life is one of contrasts. He thrives within those sites of transaction and exchange, in the ephemeral twilight, where things get messy and jagged. I wanted to write from that thin strip of contradictions too.

John Rechy receives the Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the L.A. Times book prizes in April 2018.
John Rechy receives the Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the L.A. Times book prizes in April 2018. (Silvia Razgova / Silvia Razgova)

“I’ve written better books than ‘City of Night.’ Yet it’s often as if I’ve only done that one. People will say to me ‘I love your book.’” Indeed, over a career that spans nearly five decades, Rechy has published 18 books. “You realize that there are no depictions of graphic sex in ‘City of Night’?”

It was the impression of it, he continues, the very notion that a book can call attention to such a reality, that caused so much controversy. When “City of Night” was first published, the book received a generally negative reception; in his review of it for the New York Review of Books, Alfred Chester slammed the novel and called Rechy’s stories “awful”; it regularly makes the list of most banned books in America. Yet, if graphic sex is in short supply in his first published book, there’s plenty of it in others — “Numbers,” “The Sexual Outlaw” and “The Coming of Night.” But there is also deep veneration for family, culture and religion at the core of his novels “Our Lady of Babylon” and “The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez,” both of which center on strong female characters. Whether it’s porn megastar Amber or Chicano punk rocker Manny in “Bodies and Souls” or the singularly attractive Lyle in “The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens,” Rechy shines an incandescent light on those people always on the cusp of discovering their true nature, individuals perpetually exploring the folds and areas that are undefinable and unmapped. But what might appear as blurred boundaries to us are very clear to him. “I believe in freedom of expression and in looking at situations closely and with no censorship.” He leans in, stretching his forearms, his broad shoulders flexing. “But we must always be responsible and clear about our intentions.”

In a 2013 New York Times interview, Rechy stated: “It’s been more difficult for me to come out as a Mexican-American than come out as gay.” Like his characters, his life flouts labels, rips them apart, and defiantly scatters the detritus for the rest of us to sort out. To Rechy, there is no gay or straight, no pre-Stonewall or post-Stonewall. “That historic moment has come to be considered as the defining event. But a drag queen walking the streets of Los Angeles in the early ’60s was just as radical of an evidence of protest.” He admits that, even at his age, he adamantly resists the harsh demarcations that slice and separate our experiences, that he continues waging a useless war against language. “The word ‘queer’ will always be an assault on those of my generation,” he says. “We confuse gay liberation with straight imitation. Straightness is our goal. This pushes us away from the uniqueness that is the gay experience.”

John Rechy in 1999
John Rechy in 1999 (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Rechy sees what he calls “the impeccability of writing” as a factor that inhibits young authors from excavating the kinds of stories this world desperately needs. For him, there’s a preoccupation with the politeness of the work that incapacitates many novelists — gay, straight, white, Chicana and Chicano. A careful avoidance of the more graphic depictions of life on the edges, he believes, dilutes writing. “For example,” he continues. “A sex scene should be written as carefully as the opening passage of the book. There should be no decline in the quality of the prose. It should be consistent, superbly described, and never vulgar. A restriction against the writing of sex thus becomes rarefied, polite, utterly ridiculous and filled with bad euphemisms like ‘the open flower or the ‘rasping root.’” He laughs. “Nobody wants that.”

In “The Sexual Outlaw,” he wrote, “In this context [of rage and oppression] the sexual outlaw flourishes. The pressures produce him, create his defiance. Knowing that each second his freedom may be ripped away arbitrarily, he lives fully at the brink. Promiscuity is his righteous form of revolution.” In Rechy’s skilled hands, under his penetrating gaze, we watch with patience and reverence, waiting for the next revolution to take hold.

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Espinoza is the author of two novels. His next book, “Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime,” will be published by Unnamed Press in June 2019.

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