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  WINDY CITY TIMES

BOOKS Paperback hero, Iconic author John Rechy
by Owen Keehnen
2018-05-30

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Gore Vidal hailed John Rechy as "one of the few original American writers of the last century," and with good reason.

In 1963, Rechy exploded onto the literary scene with City of Night, a gritty gay novel about an unnamed street hustler's adventures. The book of endless tricks and broken dreams careens from the streets of New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and was an international best seller. City of Night is also widely attributed with breaking numerous taboos in the mainstream publishing world. Though a best selling author, Rechy continued to work as a street hustler for years afterward as well as teach. His subsequent novels include Numbers ( 1967 ), The Vampires ( 1971 ), The Fourth Angel ( 1972 ) which was also adapted into a play, Rushes ( 1979 ), Our Lady of Babylon ( 1996 ), and The Coming of the Night ( 1999 ). His non-fiction includes The Sexual Outlaw ( 1977 ) and the memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman ( 2008 ).

Recently his 13th novel, After the Blue Hour, was released in paperback. After the Blue Hour is the story of a character named John Rechy, a young gay writer, who spends a summer on a secluded island with a man, his mistress, and the man's teenage son. The novel is tense, sexy, claustrophobic, and filled with powerful scenes. The novel is also a clear indication that Rechy's edge as a writer has not diminished one iota over the past 55 years.

Recently I had a chance to chat with the author—who turns 87 on March 10—about After the Blue Hour, his previous novels, hustling and his incredible career.

WCT: Windy City Times: In After the Blue Hour, as well as many of your previous works. You manage to capture the sexy competition/sexual dance between men. But the book contains so much more. What did you set out to do when you wrote it?

John Rechy: I wanted to explore the sexual dynamics between two men, a gay man, the narrator, and a heterosexual, Paul, the owner of the private island on which the book is set. I deal with the subterfuges they employ to mask sexual desire, like intellectual discussions, but those devolve into retelling of past erotic encounters. I brought Paul's mistress and his teenage son into the dangerous cross-currents, extending my theme.

I've run into problems with this book because of the most graphic sex scenes I've ever written, gay and straight ( one scene in a church ), to convey the growing potential for violence.

WCT: After the Blue Hour also blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, another hallmark of much of your work. You name John Rechy as the main character and include many autobiographical details. One of the quotes in the book is "Fiction is more honest in its disguise." Was that what the line blurring was about?

JR: In After the Blue Hour, I've developed my concept of "true fiction," a conversion of autobiography into fiction, done right on the page. An example: At a tense moment, John Rechy, the main character and narrator, is sure that a teenage boy on the private island is about to tell a lie about an ugly encounter. The narrator prepares to rebut him in front of others there. But the boy says nothing. When the narrator begins to write about that event, he realizes that a reader will not believe that nothing was said. So he rewrites the same passage, twisting it into fiction that the reader will believe. This approach also allows the author to be more honest.

WCT: How did it allow you to be more honest?

JR: All biographers are liars, no matter how great. How can anyone know another's life? The autobiographer is a much bigger liar, claiming that what he's narrating is the absolute truth, exactly as he remembers, because it happened to him. But memory is unreliable, constantly revising into its own shifting narrative, different tomorrow from what it is today. In the hierarchy of writers, the fiction writer is the most honest, declaring: "This is a fiction that I'm trying to make you believe." That also allows the writer to "confess" as fiction what he might not admit as "autobiography."

WCT: One of the parallels between your real life and After the Blue Hour is that you began writing pieces about your experience in gay life in late 50s/1960. How did those stories develop into City of Night?

JR: I never intended to write about my years the streets. In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, days and nights of sex, booze, drugs, I felt out of control in a world that had been wondrously exciting, but was wrenching into terrifying.

I fled back to El Paso, and, there, wrote ( now on a rented Underwood typewriter which I've kept in kind retirement ) about that time. I didn't mail the letter, found it later, and sent it to "Evergreen Review," where "Mardi Gras" appeared, I still didn't write the book. I returned to "the streets" for several years. Back again in El Paso, I wrote City of Night.

I've never stopped wondering what happened to the "real people" I developed into characters. For many, the hustlers, the queens, life was lived on the edge, no exit, a dead-end once youth is gone. Writing "saved" me. But what was left, for the others? They haunt me.

WCT: After these stories were published, you received letters from several authors, one of which is another idol of mine, James Baldwin. What did he say in the letter?

JR: He encouraged me in a series of postcards. Norman Mailer wrote, too. After City of Night came out and I was in New York, Baldwin invited me to a lunch. I was overwhelmed, this writer I admired so highly. But at the last moment, I pulled away, frightened that my life would change radically if I become a public "writer." For years I remained anonymous; impostors made news as me in tabloids.

WCT: Were you surprised by the success of City of Night?

JR: I was sure it would be widely praised and would sell only a few copies. The opposite happened. The first review, in the lofty New York Review of Books and written by a gay man, has become notorious for its malice. It took me about 30 years to get the editor to use my rebuttal. Alas, the malignant reviewer was dead. The book did become an international best seller, and, slowly, its critical reception changed.

WCT: I want to hear about one of the most memorable characters from the novel, the incomparable Miss Destiny.

JR: Oh, yes, Miss Destiny. She continued to be "indomitable." Catching sight of me on Hollywood Boulevard one day—and having somehow read "The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny" in [ONE magazine]—and, somehow, deducing that I had written it—rushed across the street and gasped at me, "My dear, I want to thank you for making me even more famous!" After City of Night came out, she was on the cover of a gay publication, resplendent in full drag, all a-glitter. I think of her often, and wonder. She was a defiant pioneer.

WCT: What about you made you want to keep working the streets as a hustler long after you achieved literary fame?

JR: The seductive euphoria it continued to provide. To extend it, I remained anonymous. Apparently I was successful: Once, in Griffith Park, a man drove up and said that someone had written a book about me. What book? "Numbers," he said. "Oh? Who wrote it?" "A guy who calls himself John Rechy, but that can't be his name. No one would write a book like that under his real name." As he drove off, he called back, "Goodbye, Johnny Rio."

Some people did deduce who I was. Past midnight once, in an area of shadows and sex, I was leaving an encounter in a garage when a man, approaching, shattered the night's dark silence by shouting: "Author! Author!" Another time, when I was teaching at UCLA and then going on the streets after class, I was standing on a corner, shirt off, on Santa Monica Boulevard, and a car drove by, windows down, and the driver said to me, "Good evening, Professor Rechy, are you out for an evening stroll?"

WCT: So, after City of Night, you lived in Los Angeles, continued to work as a hustler, and were a famous gay author in a time when a lot of people were still closeted. I imagine you got hit by a lot of famous gay men.

JR: I didn't want to rely on my so-called fame. I found it impossible to be welcome as a writer when the welcome became a proposition. A noted professor invited me to dinner with him and his partner. After scintillating literary conversation, they started to come on to me. To not insult them with rejection, I told them that my sexual activities were now confined to Griffith Park. One of the men said, "What if I bring in a potted tree from outside?"

WCT: What sort of censorship issues did you face with City of Night at the time?

JR: Some bookstores wouldn't carry it, some kept it under the counter, it was seized by customs in Canada and Australia, along with a favorite book of mine, Nabokov's Lolita. As the American entry in the Prix Formentor international competition for "first novel." it caused the Spanish representatives to threaten to withdraw if it remained a contender. It was withdrawn. It's been published in over a dozen countries now, including in ... Spain. The Sexual Outlaw was "banned" in England before it appeared. A loony religious group, "Festival of Light," threatened the publishers with a censorship battle if it was released.

I've faced an equally deadly "censorship" with After the Blue Hour. Some book review editors have refused to review it. In one instance it was assigned, twice, and both times the reviewers returned it, and no review appeared.

WCT: Why do you think you continued to be censored, like with the review?

JR: Ostensibly its very graphic gay and "straight" sexuality and a misinterpretation of Paul's concept of "willing victims," a concept whose dark core, its potential for cruelty, the narrator uncovers in a turbulent erotic scene.

WCT: Earlier you mentioned another of my favorite books of yours, Numbers, a terrific pre-Stonewall novel about a gay man ( Johnny Rio ) determined to have sex with as many guys as he can over the period of a week. This book worked for me on several levels, it's sexy and at the same time harrowing. What were you trying to achieve with it?

JR: The idea for Numbers came as I drove out of Los Angeles, after a brief visit to the city, and back to El Paso, where I was then living. My mother had come with me to spend some time with my sister. During that 10-day visit I discovered Griffith Park, then a notorious sexual playground, miles and miles of coves and hills and sex. I spent every day there, collecting "numbers." As I drove out of Los Angeles—my mother next to me—I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a reflection of Los Angeles, a smoky dome before the blue sky opened. I placed a pad of paper on the console; my mother kept the paper steady as I wrote the first lines of Numbers, trying to extrapolate some order from my sex-driven sojourn in what now seemed a city of revelation and "lost angels."

You're right—it is a sexual horror story. The "park" turns into the "Park," an almost warring presence against Johnny Rio's impossible attempt to run against time, an assertion of life in orgasmic moments.

Let me make an aside on your reference to "pre-Stonewall." What happened there is a triumphant event, but it is not the only one in our history. Years before, in San Francisco, Los Angeles ( and I assume elsewhere ) powerful bursts of defiance occurred, left unrecorded. In those "earlier times," just being in a gay bar exposed you to arrest during recurrent raids. Discovered—or claimed by cops to be—in even an attempted gay sexual act ( "solicitation" )—might result in a prison sentence of up to five years. Our history is an evolution against entrenched oppression, still manifest today. There's also this: Those years referred to as "pre-Stonewall" were years of liberating literature—Ginsberg, Burroughs, many more.

WCT: Speaking of, what writers most influenced you as a novice writer?

JR: A whole range: the classic writers, Greek tragedies, modern writers, Faulkner, Lorca, Styron, Carson McCullers ( Reflections in a Golden Eye is a tight masterpiece in which every character is despicable, and I love that ), Nabokov, Bronte, Thomas Berger, Proust, Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Flannery O'Connor. So many more. But I've been influenced by movie serials, comic books [and people such as] Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Billie Holiday, Maria Ewing [and] Chuck Berry.

Movies are a major influence, too, including that old garish masterpiece Duel in the Sun. At times I write in "Technicolor" ( Bodies and Souls ), at other times in "Black and white" ( The Sexual Outlaw. )

WCT: Another of my favorite books of yours is The Fourth Angel. I'm curious what you set out to do with that novel.

JR: After my beloved mom died, my life seemed to shatter. I fell in with a group of people—adults, like me—who had every drug imaginable; and I joined in that deceptive feast. The drugs eventually came roaring at me in suicidal days and nights. When I finally could write about that time, I turned the adults, including myself, into children, which in a reckless way we were.

WCT: In your career, you veered from gay literature with novels like The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez ( 1991 ) and Marilyn's Daughter ( 1988 ). Was the writing experience different? Was it more difficult to get into the minds of straight characters?

JR: It's true that several of my books can't be classified as "gay fiction," but It's also true that every one of my books has gay characters essential to the narratives. In Our Lady of Babylon, narrated by a woman, I include a sex scene between Jesus and Judas, viewed from a distance. About your asking whether there is a vast difference in writing "straight characters": A British reviewer said that I wrote the best hetero sex scenes he had ever read—and I certainly hope that's true of my gay sex scenes. I've often said that all you have to do to write a good sex scene is to make at least one participant beautiful or handsome, male or female, to arouse the reader's focus.

Writers should not be restricted, ever, in the act of creation. Alas, gay writers are often pushed into a "ghetto," away from the mainstream of literature, not widely reviewed, put into occasional "roundups." Attaching restrictive labels to any artist results in a depletion of art itself.

WCT: You were arrested multiple times for prostitution in L.A.'s Griffith Park at a time when that was a pretty major offense and could result in years in prison. How did you avoid that?

JR: Three times. In Griffith Park and on the streets. If you were on the "front lines," you couldn't avoid encountering the fascinated cops.

WCT: So how did you avoid jail when you were arrested three times? What was your punishment?

JR: Expensive attorney. Probation. Fined. Those recurrent arrests were routine. Many resulted from the cops' heated lies, and they did lie routinely, easily.

WCT: Was your quote, "S&M reenacts the oppression that gay people received from the so called straight world," a comment about all BDSM activity or was it specifically in reference to your novel Rushes? Could you give it a context?

JR: Let me clarify this: I know that world from the inside, having felt its powerful lure for a short period. ... Sometime in the '70s, leather folks held a "slave auction." "Masters" in leather and brandishing handcuffs, bid for "slaves" in cages, crawling out when they were "bought" and handcuffed by their "masters." Of course it was all charade, and consensual. Still, a squad of uniformed cops raided, clamping real handcuffs on both "masters" and "slaves", both hauled away to be arraigned. Nothing revealed more clearly to me what gay people were reutilizing. When I was arrested, I felt the cold power of real handcuffs.

WCT: Tell me about your partner, Michael.

JR: When I first saw him, he looked like a cross between an angel and Tom Sawyer, which he had played on stage. Throughout the more than 40 years we've been together, he has been my love, my partner, my spouse, just as I have been for him. And it all continues and grows.

Rechy won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction June 4 for After the Blue Hour.


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