"When John Rechy does a book reading or signing, people still expect him to show up wearing a tight t-shirt and tight jeans," says Charles Casillo, the author of Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy--a revealing new biography on literature's most prolific street hustler. "They expect him to be a character from one of his books, and at age 70, he carries it off remarkably well. He works out and he's trim. His physical body remains as important to him as his body of work."
But the "tight t-shirt" is just one of Rechy's many personas. "He invited me to observe one of his creative writing classes here in Los Angeles, where I saw him in a completely different light. He's quite the showman in a classroom setting--but not in campy way. He's very charming and he has this flair for giving astute advice to his students and of relaying anecdotes from his experiences in the literary world, or from his life on the street corner, that show how his real-life experiences have inspired his writing."
Open the book Outlaw, randomly select just about any page, and you'll discover that Rechy, author of 12 novels including the bestseller City Of Night, has always been a chameleon, instinctively changing colors to adapt to his ever-changing environment.
"He could--and still can--easily move into specific realms and know how to act in whatever situation he is in. He could be at a dinner party hosted by Christopher Isherwood and know which fork to use, and then leave and hitchhike home and get a score." Casillo, assigned to write an extended profile of Rechy for a now-defunct magazine, wasn't sure which persona he would encounter upon arriving at the author's home. "I was totally surprised by what I found. I expected to find this brooding, aloof person, but instead I discovered we had a very similar temperament. We're both sensitive, creative individuals," offers Casillo, author of The Marilyn Diaries. In fact, it was Marilyn Monroe herself that provided a connection for the biographer and his subject: "Marilyn Monroe has been a muse for each of us and we've both written about her in fictionalized forms.
"We were originally supposed to do 10, one-hour interviews, but we never stuck to that," says the young, openly gay biographer, who balks when asked if his interaction with the legendary male hustler (he once told People magazine he stopped counting partners at 7,000) was marked by any palatable sexual heat.
"I never felt sexual tension, but I do think John is a very seductive person. And I don't mean that in a sexual way. I mean his personality is seductive, his sensitivity and his kindness. I think John's used to people coming on to him, even women, and long ago he figured out how to put up boundaries in situations like this." If anyone engaged in a little "seducing," it was Casillo, whose magazine profile was so well-received by Rechy that the author asked him to expand it into a book.
"I remember him saying, 'I'll tell you things I've never told people before.' I guess he just thought it was time to do a full biography." Among the most interesting revelations handed over by Rechy center around the author's relationship with his mother. "This is the most complex mother-son relationship I have ever heard or read about. John had a very brutal, domineering father and his mother was his only protection from him. And she held on tight to John--with both hands. As for his mother, she didn't share a bedroom with her husband, she was afraid of him, but now that she had a baby, she finally had someone to give all of her love to. The father was very jealous of their relationship.
"John and his mother remained close to the very end. They lived together and he took care of her. But she never once brought up hustling or John's homosexuality [to her son]," continues Casillo. "He does recall overhearing one conversation his mother had with one of his aunts. The aunt acknowledged that John was successful, but she asked his mother if she knew what [City of Night] was actually about. And before John could rush into the room to stop the conversation, his mother replied, 'No matter what it's about, I know he is able to get into fine restaurants.'"
Of course, Rechy's fame extends beyond the ability to secure coveted restaurant reservations, and perhaps no one is more aware of this than Rechy himself. Casillo agrees that readers may be alienated by Rechy's "rather arrogant opinion of his place in American Literature," but he also emphatically believes the author's work has been largely "overlooked" and that he is rarely given his "proper due." "He will eventually get [the recognition] that he deserves ... and that is because Rechy is a master at using his life and relationships and transforming them through his writer's eye into immortality."
Aside from books, what better way to immortalize the author's life experiences and writing than to have his story artfully captured on film? "I think there will be a great deal of interest in John Rechy's story from actors," predicts Casillo, a Los Angles resident, who sheepishly admits that he, like almost everyone else in Hollywood, burns with the desire to write screenplays. For now, he's taking the wait-and-see approach as far as adapting his book for the silver screen, though he already knows who should be cast as Rechy: Johnny Depp. Though he hasn't publicly expressed interest in developing Outlaw into a movie, film director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Speedway Junkie) did agree to have his reaction to the book blurbed on its cover, where he says, in part, "You must read this biography immediately."
"Gus Van Sant has said that My Own Private Idaho was inspired by City of Night and that he had Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix read it to prepare for their roles in the film," says Casillo, who was humbled by the director's seal of approval.
Like the daring, young actors featured in My Own Private Idaho, readers will undoubtedly continue to read Rechy's novels as inspiration for their own life "roles." Or as Casillo observes, to realize the possibilities that exist if those preordained roles of housewife, businessman, circuit boy etc. are reinterpreted to reveal the dark, haunting beauty of "everyday" adventures.
Of Mexican-Scottish descent, Rechy makes his home in Los Angeles, where he teaches literature and film courses, for writers, in the graduate division of the University of Southern California.
For more on John Rechy, go to www.johnrechy.com
Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy, published December 2002 by Advocate Books