John Rechy Rechy, John (Vol. 7) - Essay

Rechy, John (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rechy, John 1934–

Rechy is an American novelist. The appalling vision he presented in City of Night has been called morality transformed into nightmare. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The temptation is almost irresistible—and I don't suppose I shall be able to withstand it entirely—to try to score off John Rechy's City of Night, to set up against its grotesque and graceless exhibition a scintillating road show of your own. This fictionalized account of a homosexual Wanderjahr is so pervasively bad, so ludicrous a performance at all but one or two points, yet so strenuously intended to be big and revelatory and dangerous, that putting it down seems like the clearest of cultural duties. Well, cultural duties have a way of turning into opportunities for a display of the self, and indeed a good deal of what I have read or heard about the book since it came out has been characterized by just this public honing of wit and invective at the expense of the issues which Rechy's painful and symptomatic creation, and the painful and symptomatic popular response to it, have raised. (p. 53)

Yet I can't see what all this has to do with criticism. I don't know how it can take account of the dreadful earnestness—which could never have been faked or formulated—of City of Night; or of the reasons why it should be so widely regarded, by even such a substantial and putatively reliable witness as James Baldwin, as a sort of furious masterpiece of new statement; or, most central of all, of the really dramatic way it illustrates the present widespread confusion of art and life. There exists these days a naïve and cave-dwelling commitment to extreme situations and modes of behavior, a hang-up on perversity and perversion as sources of aesthetic truth, and John Rechy's lugubrious book is its masterpiece….

Surely the most ferocious of the many ironies that surround the book is the fact that it should promise so much shock and perturbation and turn out to be so flat, cowed and inhibited. From one end to the other Rechy's work smells of repression, both psychological and imaginative, and of narcissism of an especially depleting and devitalizing kind. (p. 54)

The particular activities that are chronicled in City of Night … are real, sanguinary and extreme enough in themselves, but what happens to them in Rechy's unwizardly and weakness-diffusing hands is another matter. Whatever this blue-jeaned voyage a la bout de la nuit may have been in actuality, it has not survived its metamorphosis into literature, it has no status in the imagination nor any cautionary, redemptive or insurrectionary power. And since bad writing corrupts by recoil the life it is drawn from, the last sad effect of Rechy's book is to lay under a heavier onus than before the events and feelings which he presumably wished with such desperation to understand and to redeem. (p. 55)

The deepest shame of a book like City of Night is that it cradles its furies and impotencies without understanding or being affected by them, and so without understanding or affecting anything else. (p. 61)

Richard Gilman, "John Rechy," in his The Confusion of Realms (© 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 53-61.

John Rechy's first novel, City of Night, was loved mostly by homosexuals and amorphous polyglots who like to believe they can accommodate every shade in the human spectrum. I don't know who's going to love his latest work.

City of Night, that is to say, rode in on a crest of interest about homosexuality cum violence, and benefited from the strong homosexual lobby in publishing and the literary life. Full of conceits, obtuse style, overwriting, lurid writing and just plain bad writing, it is not, I think, a particularly good novel. At that time—1966—its subject matter was somewhat sensational, and led to the book's notoriety….

Meanwhile, back in El Paso or Los Angeles or wherever, Rechy was learning to write. Over the next few years he produced several other novels; none of which I've read. But now comes The Fourth Angel, and the difference is dramatic.

The book is chock-full of fine writing. That's a compliment. God knows there's enough else wrong with it—but let the good things roll!

Style is what I'm talking about. Style, like money, may not be everything but everything else is far behind….

But style! The correct metaphor, the exact word out of the 600,000 in our language, the precise balance of import, the proper use of assonance and alliteration, the feel for rhythm and pattern, the knowledge of the magic number three, the pull of sequence, the right verb at the right time, the transposition of sentence structure, a hundred other things. Finally, the careful choice—lovingly, almost reluctantly—of each word upon each word. That is the beginning of the art of fine writing.

Rechy is getting there. The Fourth Angel is pure style. A tour de force, certainly. Overly stylized, perhaps. But what a joy to read the perfect description of an old couch, a darkened room, a clowder of cats. And what a delight to see verbs used the way they could—and should—be used.

The story—slight, too slight! too bad! (p. 8)

The Fourth Angel pretends to be more than it is, and promises more than it can possibly deliver. What it is, is a slim volume of mostly fine writing about a subject that could have had consequence, but which in this instance was refined to the point of no return. Nothing really happens, nothing moves.

Most second-rate novels have stories far superior to the writing. In The Fourth Angel, the writing itself is the best part of the book.

Rechy, at least, is on the right road. (p. 9)

Shane Stevens, "Suddenly Lost Summer," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 12, 1973, pp. 8-9.

A fiction writer who deliberately aims to shock and startle his readers inevitably saddles himself with the problem of built-in obsolescence: one literary generation's shock is the next generation's weary shrug. Was it only ten years ago that John Rechy published City of Night? Today, the book's central character, the peripatetic stud hustler, encased in his armor of emotional detachment and terrified of admitting his true sexual orientation, seems like a creature out of another era. By 1964, Rechy's revelations about the American homosexual subculture were eclipsed by the appearance of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, a book that explored some of the same territory with savage power and with far greater universal applicability…. The more successfully realized portions of City of Night dealt with emotional sterility and with the compulsive search for fleeting sexual gratification; Rechy's later novel Numbers (1967) zeroed in on these two themes to the exclusion of any other human or literary dimension, with the result that its characters behaved like galvanized dead insects and possessed about as much warmth or depth. The writer of Numbers seemed to have entered a hopeless blind alley.

As it turns out, he hadn't. The Fourth Angel, John Rechy's latest novel, is an entirely new departure for him…. Much of the book is written with an intensity and a driving originality that seem new in Rechy's work…. [We] meet a different and more interesting John Rechy in this book, one with newly sharpened powers of observation and an expanded emotional range. Where he used to go in for rubbing his readers' noses in Mondo Cane pseudo-revelations, he now takes them on a tour of his juveniles' believably constructed private hell. It is hard to predict whether or not The Fourth Angel will become as dated as City of Night in another ten years. Right here and now, however, it is eminently worth reading. (p. 23)

Simon Karlinsky, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 5, 1974.