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John Rechy 1934–
(Full name John Francisco Rechy) American novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Rechy's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 7, 14, and 18.
Rechy is a major force in contemporary American gay literature. His portrayal of the hustler and the steamy underside of the homosexual community has earned him international attention as a literary artisan. In addition, as a Hispanic writer, he has focused attention on the Chicano community in his later fiction and non-fiction writings.
Rechy was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 10, 1934, to Roberto Sixto Rechy and Guadalupe Flores de Rechy, immigrants from Mexico. The family lived in poverty in western Texas through the Great Depression. His father was a musician and ran a small newspaper. Rechy attended Texas Western College in El Paso on a journalism scholarship. He received a B.A. in English and then briefly attended the New School of Social Research in New York City. He was drafted and served in Germany but was awarded an early release in order to attend Columbia. When he arrived in New York City he became involved in the gay subculture, hustling and traveling around the country. While in New Orleans he wrote a letter to a friend which became the basis for "Mardi Gras," his first published story. In 1961 he won the Longview Foundation Fiction Prize for "The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny." He incorporated both of these stories as well as his personal experiences as a hustler into his first book City of Night (1963). The book became an international best seller and earned Rechy much critical attention. After living, writing, and teaching in El Paso for many years, Rechy moved to Los Angeles, where he continues to write and teach at the University of California—Los Angeles.
Rechy's most acclaimed work is his first novel, City of Night. The story follows the exploits and night life of a young hustler as he travels urban America meeting people who exist on the margins of society. Chapters oscillate between the experiences of the protagonist and the life stories of the people he meets. The main character searches for love and salva-tion, but after arriving back home in El Paso, he concludes that redemption is impossible. The themes of alienation and the futility of salvation, as well as Rechy's vivid descriptions of the hustling scene are common in his subsequent works. Numbers (1967), another bestseller, follows the exploits of Johnny Rio as he attempts to complete a set number of sexual encounters in Los Angeles and, thus, reestablish meaning in his life. Rechy introduces stylistic techniques and themes in this novel which he further develops in his next novels—This Day's Death (1969) and Rushes (1979). These novels are both social commentaries on society's treatment of homosexuals as well as explorations of the gay community. Rushes looks at life in a leather bar and explores the ideas of submission and dominancy within the gay community. In The Sexual Outlaw (1977) Rechy continues to explore stylistic variations. He calls the book a non-fiction novel and it is part social commentary, part novel, part autobiography. In his later work Rechy has dealt more with Chicano issues and characters. The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez (1991) is his most Hispanic novel to date. While it does not deal with issues of homosexuality, Rechy continues to explore themes of alienation and marginalization from the dominant society. In his later work he has also begun to focus on the role of women in society. The Miraculous Day, Marilyn's Daughter (1988), and Our Lady of Babylon (1996) all center on female characters struggling with identity issues. Rechy has also written non-fiction articles about Chicano culture for journals and magazines.
Rechy's first novel City of Night sparked a great deal of popular and critical attention. Many critics argued that Rechy's explicit descriptions constituted pornography meant not to edify but only to titillate readers. In addition, other critics believe that Rechy has harmed the public image of the homosexual community by focusing on the undercurrents of the hustling scene. They argue that by writing about characters who are misfits, delinquents, and their emotionally barren lifestyle that Rechy has reenforced society's negative impression of homosexuals. However, the book also produced positive reaction. For instance, Trudy Steuernagel argues that in City of Night Rechy portrays homosexuals as political rebels defying society but that in Rechy's subsequent novels his characters only appear as deviants. Rechy's subsequent novels have attracted less attention individually but Rechy has been spotlighted by critics as an Hispanic author who writes about the homosexual experience. Gregory Bredbeck chastizes other critics for failing to pay adequate attention to Rechy's writing style and form. Bredbeck writes: "reviewers have almost universally preferred to criticize the content and ignore the form, as if the topic of homosexuality is, in and of itself, enough to remove the need for artistic judgement." Rechy has most often been compared with James Baldwin. Scholars note that both are homosexuals and members of ethnic minorities, thus creating a double minority. However, many comment that while Baldwin focused primarily on racial issues, that Rechy has deemphasized the Chicano issues to focus on homosexuality in his novels.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70
City of Night (novel) 1963
Numbers (novel) 1967
This Day's Death (novel) 1969
The Vampires (novel) 1971
The Fourth Angel (novel) 1973
The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary. A Non-Fiction Account, with Commentaries, of Three Days and Nights in the Sexual Underground (nonfiction) 1977
Momma as She Was—Not as She Became (play) 1978
Rushes (novel) 1979
Bodies and Souls (novel) 1983
Tigers Wild (play) 1986
Marilyn's Daughter (novel) 1988
The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez (novel) 1991
Our Lady of Babylon (novel) 1996
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SOURCE: "You May Have Missed These," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall, 1971, pp. 270-72.
[In the following excerpt, Lemon argues that This Day's Death is made more powerful because Rechy refrains from preaching.]
Every once in a while, a reviewer is obligated to clear his shelves, which really means discovering books that should have been reviewed long ago. It can be a welcome opportunity for reminding readers of works they might have missed when the publishers were advertising them, but that deserve a life beyond one advertising season. Three of the novels from the back of my shelves—the late 1969 and early 1970 part—deserve such belated attention. This Day's Death, by John Rechy, Salvage, by Jacqueline Gillott, and Dirty Pictures from the Prom, by Earl M. Rauch ought to be rescued from that peculiarly deep abyss into which one-year-old books regularly fall.
Rechy's This Day's Death is a very quietly, very precisely intense story of a rather ordinary man awaiting trial for a homosexual act he did not commit. There is very little sensationalism in Rechy's novel (for a change); emphasis is rather on the growing horror as the protagonist, Jim Girard, waits while the courts slowly grind out his fate. On one level, This Day's Death has to be read as a low-keyed but disturbing social reform novel. The targets are the police and the courts. Officer Daniels, the chief witness against Girard, is that kind of person who sees his own hang-ups reflected in those around him. He is, to use the jargon phrase, a latent homosexual whose own repressions force him into a misinterpretation of an accidental and essentially innocent encounter between two men. He is not especially brutal, nor especially stupid; but he is a man whose own instability has driven him to become a guardian of other men's morals.
The problem in the courts is quite different, and perhaps in the long run even more serious. The question Rechy poses is: How does it feel to be an innocent man accused of a crime, a man fully confident that he will be cleared, as the months drag on before the case is heard? How does it feel to be an innocent man who comes to realize that his best hope is a guilty plea and a suspended sentence? What is the effect on family, business, friends, fiancee? This Day's Death is a powerful novel in part because Rechy has avoided the temptation to preach. Instead, he concentrates on one of the chief jobs of the novelist—that of communicating experience as he believes it to be.
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SOURCE: "An Interview with John Rechy," in Chicago Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Summer, 1973, pp. 19-31.
[In the interview below, Rechy discusses his literary influences, style, and the role of homosexuality in his work.]
[Giles:] Would you like to begin by talking about what contemporary writers impress you?
[Rechy]: Thomas Wolfe. And when I was a kid William Faulkner, very much. In fact, when I first started writing, I thought it would be obvious, that people would say, God damn, he's trying to imitate Faulkner. I was also very influenced by Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes. I read it when I was a kid, and it influenced me not so much stylistically as in a strange, hallucinative mood that it has. I've never dug Ernest Hemingway—all that heavy posturing.
How about right now?
I admire Norman Mailer. He can do some righteous writing when he's not being a clown. This may surprise you, but I like that ass Nabokov very much.
Why do you call him an ass?
Because of his posturing—all that aristocratic bull; everything I dislike; looking down on all the humanistic things. But I dig him as a writer—Pale Fire is a great book.
When I was a kid, I dug him.
Did you like Other Voices?
When I was a kid…. Carson McCullers has survived for me, especially Reflections in the Golden Eye [sic].
Did you read In Cold Blood?
I haven't finished that book; I started it several times. But then Capote was giving his big party, and I thought, somebody who writes a book like that should go into a kind of dignified retirement for a while, because of its subject. Man, you don't make a fucking million dollars out of a tragedy like that and then give a black-and-white party with Princess Radziwill.
Let's get to your work. I was wondering if you'd talk about the stylistic innovations in the transitional chapters of City of Night. The combination of stream-of-consciousness and straight narrative, and how important you think that is to the book's overall unity.
Part of City of Night's style was determined by the fact that it began literally as a letter I wrote to a friend of mine; and much of the tone of the linking chapters remains very much that of a letter, especially in the earlier versions that I wrote.
Would you say maybe This Day's Death is the most heavily innovative of your books because of the gradual introduction of the stream-of-consciousness?
I had never thought of it that way. It's so difficult to view one's own work as innovative, because you work from your own head. City of Night is more innovative because of the shifts of verb tense within the same sentence—I wanted to give the feeling of memory and present and continuity and past, like when you flash on something, and it becomes so real, in the present, and then it's in the past. Some people were irritated by that, the change from present to past to present, but I wanted that, because it's a time novel. I wanted to duplicate memory. Because I was recalling things in my own life, and they were real; and yet I was writing about them now in the present, and they were past. And then the odd capitalization.
I was going to ask about that.
It was nothing that I consciously sat down to do. It just happened. I don't know how to explain it.
You capitalize the word "escape."
Oh, in every book. Like that's what life is about—trying to Escape. (Laughter.) Yeah, I've dropped the odd capitalization because it fitted very much with City of Night, and some of it in Numbers and This Day's Death, but less. There's hardly any of it in The Vampires, with the exception of Escape…. And you know—unrelated—there's a phrase that appears in every one of my books and will probably appear in every book I write; that's "No substitute for salvation." That's one of the major themes of my writing—the search for a substitute for salvation. There isn't one, and that's the existential nightmare.
In the last two books, you've done more of the gradual providing of information than you had in the first two, and that seems in some ways more innovative than the first two were.
I was learning techniques. City of Night was anarchy in its own way, to convey the anarchy of the life I was writing about. Yet I worked very hard on that effect, rewrote it many times. Overall, it has a very good concrete shape.
I think so, and I think each story is beautifully formed.
Yeah, I think so too.
Numbers has always seemed to me the most traditionally, rigidly formed of the four books. In an almost kind of classical way.
Yeah! I dig your saying that. It's the best structured book I've done; I really shaped it quite consciously. The bummer about its reception was that people were so freaked about the sex in that they thought it was a sex book and that's all—people being superior to sex and all that bullshit; I hate people to be superior to sex, man, because sex is overwhelming in our lives…. Numbers was very carefully structured, everything was outlined, every chapter, with the exception of the first one, which I wrote, believe it or not, literally while I drove out of Los Angeles to El Paso, with my mother holding the writing pad on the console and I steering with one hand, writing with the other. I got terribly romantic about that book, I thought I'd die before I finished it. It was a fierce compulsion, the same drive, the same sexual drive of the hunt, that was projected into the writing. I wrote it in exactly three months of intense writing. With one very notable exception, all the hunters described in it are real, they were fresh on my memory—and then sometimes, as with Johnny Rio, they would fade, recur, fade. The strange man who follows Johnny Rio—the man who drives the red car—he's totally made up; he wears sunglasses which become mirrored glasses—and he becomes younger and more attractive as the book proceeds. And he's death. As Johnny Rio's existential trip progresses, death becomes more and more attractive to him.
Would you say you use the homosexual in the same way the existentialist writer uses the concept of the outsider, the totally alienated being?
Yeah, right. To me there's no more alienated figure than the homosexual. It's the only minority against whose existence there are laws. There's no law against being black, or Jewish, or anything else; but there are laws against being homosexual. You might say, well, that's not true; there are laws against homosexual acts. But how do you define homosexuality other than by the act? The homosexual is the clearest symbol of alienation and despair. And nobility.
Talk about that.
Nobility? I mean, just to survive against all the bullshit they put on us: the law telling us we're criminals, religion telling us we're sinners, psychiatrists telling us we're sick. And yet, how the hell have they dared make us feel we have to hide when we've produced the greatest paintings, the greatest writing? Even generals—but you can have them. It takes a hell of a lot to survive all the crap, and not only to survive but then to produce great art as a result of our unique sensibility and sensuality—and it is unique. We have every reason to be proud. So I think that the homosexual as hero is a good symbol.
How particularly is the ending of Numbers an example of existential nothingness?
Numbers ends with a cry of absolute despair; it's like a geometric progression that has no end, and Johnny Rio will of course just simply go on. That last chapter in Numbers is meant to be a descent into a private hell, Johnny descends into a subterranean area of Griffith Park. And I meant to create a vision of hell. The last words are screamed out because the nightmare has shaped and will just continue until the final absurdity—death.
What would you want to say to people who accuse that book of being strictly pornography?
That they have a problem.
I said and still think that it's an intensely moral, if not religious, book.
Right. And religious. Johnny Rio's despair is religious. He finds no substitute for salvation. The only way he can feel alive is through sexual contact. And since that requires more and more, like a drug, he traps himself in his nightmare. The deeper he gets, the more numbers he needs. And sex is a metaphor—Johnny chooses sex because that's the only thing that makes him feel alive. Otherwise he feels dead.
Will you talk a little more about the religious element in your fiction, the symbolism?
I was brought up a Catholic, and that's a heavy trip. I don't know if you've noticed the importance of confession in all my books. City of Night itself is a confession—and one of the last scenes is of the narrator trying to find a confessor, which I tried to do, in New Orleans—and I encountered all those bummer priests that weren't about to be awakened: you know, my God, if you're frantic, why aren't you frantic during office hours?… It's a very confessional book in the sense of experiences, but it's also confessional at the end where the narrator finally finds a priest who will listen over the telephone. Then of course Numbers is also a confessional book in content, but there's also the reference to Johnny compulsively wanting to explain and find reasons—the scene out in the Santa Monica Canyon. And there's the reference to his having as a child gone to bed praying the rosary, which I used to do, and to the numbers of the beads. Again, the phrase "no substitute for salvation." And then This Day's Death is also confessional—beyond the fact that the trial is presented within such a frame. And in The Vampires the major scene is when they play a game of confessions. In my next book—The Fourth Angel—four children invade a church, and a girl plays confessor, and the other children confess for the people that have fucked them over…. Religion is a powerful influence in my writing. There's one brief scene in City of Night during Mardi Gras when the narrator is enveloped by a Satan figure in costume. Then he frees himself, and the next thing he sees is a very awesome cathedral. City of Night is a kind of trip through Purgatory; the existential trap is that finally there's no Heaven after Purgatory…. And the black woman in Numbers that proclaims doom; Johnny Rio clings to a kind of religious hope through her—because as long as she's there to proclaim doom, there's still hope. And there's the gypsy woman in City of Night—…
Well, then the statue of Christ, of course.
The statue of Christ, the pilgrimage to the Christ statue. They abound. In This Day's Death, there's the Madonna, the Mother of Sorrows, which my beautiful mother loved so much. And the strange, mystic lady who comes to stay with them. And in City of Night, when the narrator is hustling for the first time, he sees a drawing on the wall, and he flashes on a woman—a madonna, a mother; and then he pulls his eyes away. Of course you know that the Virgin, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is very enormous in Mexican life.
And then there's the priest in The Vampires.
Probably The Vampires is my most religious book.
Talk about that.
The whole is built around the confession, and Wanda picked upon this. It's set in hell. A vision of hell: If Satan does extract confessions for his permission to enter hell, wouldn't one then confess the worst? And these people have come to pour out the worst. Someone says that God begins to look like Satan, "like lovers." And I conceived of Richard as a Satan—God figure—and he actually wants these people to resist his evil.
Would you say he becomes in a way also kind of pathetic? Yes. He's destroyed when it's revealed that he's in search of purity. And every one of the characters is looking for purity. And they haven't found it. All the characters in it are evil.
Including Valerie; Valerie's may be the ultimate evil, which can't face itself.
Yeah, I thought so; but would you explain why she is?
I wanted different interpretations. Valerie may have hallucinated her incestuous love for her brother, and unable to face it she therefore kills him. But it's also possible that Valerie is the only one who isn't evil—if indeed she does know that her brother is becoming one of the vampires, has sucked her blood; and in order to save his soul, to exorcise it, she murders him.
But that would still make purity a hate-filled thing, wouldn't it?
It would make it a driven, black thing, where the soul is violently triumphant. But a case could be made that Valerie finally is the only pure one because she kills in order to save her brother and therefore sacrifices her own soul—because there is the thing that in her mind she has saved him, there's blood on his body, the blood she drew, but not on his lips—which she sees on the others. And so they are evil, but in her mind she may have purified her brother. Valerie is either the most evil or the only pure one. I suspect she's the most evil.
Are you supposed to feel at the end that Mark will now become Malissa's rival?
Yes, because Richard is through. The real battle is between Mark and Malissa now. The imagery of the tarantulas is meant to refer to Richard. The priest remembers the tarantulas he ran over in the desert, and he remembers them as pitiful in their evil, but it was an isolated evil; if unstirred, it would remain dormant. Richard stirs the evil and is therefore himself evil, even though he does it to find purity.
One of the things that has impressed both of us about your writing is the tremendous compassion that we think you feel, and that the reader feels, for your characters. We felt this less in The Vampires than in the other books.
When I was a kid and I would see anyone begging or in pain, that would send me into despair; I would cry and cry. Even now too much contact can destroy me…. All the characters in City of Night are modeled after real people; and often, I think, Well, God damn, I wrote about them and I put down their lives into a book; but where is Chuck, where is Skipper, where is Pete? Miss Destiny? Chi-Chi? That destroys me. But the compassion in The Vampires is of a different sort because that book begins when all compassion has ended; Richard is destroyed by the revelation of his vulnerability. I think all the characters are very tragic.
How about the grotto imagery in the three last novels?
Yes, the grottos do recur. In Numbers they refer to actual places in Griffith Park; and Jim Girard gets busted in one of the places Johnny Rio frequents. There's the grotto in The Vampires. I suppose psychologically that has to do with the same reason I always capitalize Escape. A feeling of a trap within a symbolic grotto, alcove. Life is a trap. I'm sure that's what the grottos are. The enclosure of life focusing in on the scene.
Is popular music, like rock especially, any influence?
Yes; very much. When I was writing City of Night, I saturated myself with what at the time was called rock-'n-roll because I wanted to get some of the restless, reckless beat. I was never into jazz, always into rock.
Did you understand what I meant by my idea in the letter that you use the concept of the vanished frontier as a lost symbol of innocence?
In City of Night—Chuck the cowboy who is really a make-believe cowboy moves to Los Angeles; in another time he would have been in search of the frontier. He wants a horse; he really wants the open spaces. But there's no more frontier. He rips off a horse and gets busted and ends up in jail. And he can't find his horse, and he ends up in Los Angeles utterly bewildered by his world with no frontier…. But beyond that, my books all tend to move toward the faded frontier, which is west: Los Angeles. And I have long thought, consciously and intellectually, that when the frontier ended, one started moving in. Because there was no more physical movement out, and now there was the movement inward.
Are you conscious of how that does tie in with sexual exploration?
That's really far out. Yeah—like Johnny Rio also explores a new country, and maybe Johnny Rio would at one time have been exploring a jungle, and now he's exploring a sexual jungle. That's far out. One of the aspects of good questions is that they also illuminate one's writing, too; that hadn't occurred to me, but, yeah, the exploration—the sexual exploration—replaces the territorial exploration.
You know, in Numbers Johnny Rio will consciously park his car with the Texas license plates showing.
Right, yeah, that's right, man; really far out.
Then you do feel that the Southwestern locale is an influence to you?
Really. Very much.
But then do you feel the Southwest is a repressive area toward art and creativity?
Sure. The Texas establishment wants you to be, and stay, safe.
Do you feel it's getting more repressive?
Yes, all over the country. There was a time when it seemed to be righteously loosening up, real freedom; but now, man, it's scary, you can really feel it. Can't you? You're more afraid, not as free. There was a time when at least you felt it was possible to be free. But no more.
Which Texas writers do you especially like?
Of course Larry McMurtry. And I think Elroy Bode is one of the very, very best; a beautiful writer. Terry Southern is good. And I haven't read Donald Barthelme, but I want to.
I'm glad you refer to Donald Barthelme as a Texas writer; we have a controversy at Northern about whether he's a Texas writer or a real writer.
What a bummer.
Something occurred to me after what you said about repression. I'd like to ask to what degree you feel the novelist should be a moral spokesman, as opposed to a didacticist?
I don't think City of Night is a social protest novel, to use that awful phrase; nor is Numbers. And yet This Day's Death is in part. I did want to expose an unbelievable evil that still exists—an evil that can spring on anyone at any time.
But now The Vampires is very much not a novel of protest.
Maybe moral protest.
Do you think you'll get back into some kind of social protest of the same kind you used in This Day's Death again?
Never quite like that.
That was such a personal thing?
In regard to that, do you see American society nationally becoming more repressive?
It's so clear that it is, man. Everything is poisoned. All that is ugly is out. There were a few years in the 60's—and I think Kennedy was important as a symbol, the spirit of Kennedy more than the man—hopeful years when it looked like things might be all right. But I think that these are the nightmare days now. The Supreme Court for one thing. Ominous.
What kind of effect do you think that will have on writers?
The message goes out: Be cautious. I'm sure it's being felt by everyone in the arts.
You think that will be destructive to the arts?
Of course! Look at Agnew and his hatred of intellectuals—not that intellectuals shouldn't be hated, sometimes, but not for the reasons he does.
How does that make you feel, to be warned to be cautious?
Personally I won't be cautious.
Could it make you move more into social protest?
It might…. I've never gone out to look for something to write about as a sort of protest; I've always experienced it first.
Do you think that, if this wave of repression hits, homosexuals will be the victims even more than in the past?
Yes. You know, Hitler practiced on homosexuals before he went on to the Jews. Homosexuals are attacked easily because no one else cares—not even other minorities.
Do you see yourself writing more things like your Texas Observer and Nation articles if this wave of repression gets stronger?
I'm sure of it.
Do you get a special sense of gratification out of doing this type of article?
Yeah, but I hate to do it, man. I do it only, you know, like when I'm driven by what I see. Articles bum me out, writing them—I'd rather the house fell in.
In your fiction both father and mother figures seem tremendously important and to fit into a pattern. Can you talk about them in terms of their thematic significance, particularly in the first three books?
I don't know that I could isolate them into a thematic significance. They were the most powerful figures in my life—my beautiful mother with her lovely gentleness and love, and our huge love for each other; and my father with all his ugly violence, a terrifying figure. They were opposites, and so in my books they always appear as opposites.
I feel that the tenderness vs. violence motif merges into a kind of spirit-flesh thing in your fiction.
Wow. That's a good observation.
On the flesh-spirit thing, the one problem I have with City of Night is the dog symbolism.
It works on two levels. I did have a dog named Winnie. She did indeed die during a windstorm; we did indeed bury her, and we did indeed have to dig her up when the body began to decay. And I was just a child at the time; it was a hideous experience, to watch my dog decaying. And I was told from all that Catholic bullshit that animals don't go to heaven because they have no souls…. That's the one level, the level of reality. Beyond that, there's the fact that this is the narrator's first contact with the existential horror. As long as you can cling to the concept of the soul, there's a meaning to this shit, but when you exclude the soul—when you see the body rotting after death—all there is is death; not only death, but decay—physical decay, like my dog. Symbolically, the boy's innocence is buried when the dog is reburied, decaying, soulless.
So that you'd say the ending of the book—
—makes a complete circle. The last line is a cry of despair: "It isn't fair! Why can't dogs go to heaven?" By that, the narrator is saying that nothing is fair, that all is meaningless. If dogs can't go to heaven, and life is ended in decay, there's no soul, it's all rot, just a decayed body. It's the final scream of sorrow.
It's a statement of a realization that there is no such thing as a soul.
That there is no such thing. No soul.
Then one tremendous symbol that I think probably is an existential symbol is the wind.
Well, you've experienced the wind, the Texas wind, and its desolation. The wind goes on for days and there's a relentless stripping of our soul, as if the wind is physically tearing at you. I remember the wind as an echo of angry childhood.
It's part of the symbol for impermanence.
Yes—the arbitrary shifting, just shifting away, bringing and taking, like death too, just arbitrary shifting, moving on.
Why don't you just talk about The Fourth Angel now?
Okay. I'll probably never do another book like The Vampires; that was a flashback because I had done a similar book when I was a kid. It was called Pablo!—and there were witches and spirits in it. Now City of Night, Numbers, and This Day's Death are pretty autobiographical—and that doesn't deny their artistic creation. I'm not just a reporter. I mean, so what if you use "reality", you still have to put it down and give it order. For example, although Numbers is very much a record of a trip I took to Los Angeles—a pilgrimage—by the time I set it down, the figures and the incidents became symbolic, too, they have other meanings, and you can't be put down as a reporter. There's the structure, the organization. Anyway, those first three books are somewhat of a trilogy. In The Fourth Angel, I've returned in a strange way to the autobiographical; but I've turned the characters into children—sixteen-year-olds. Many of my own experiences—I put on a sixteen-year-old boy. There are four main characters, three boys and a girl. They go on what they call experience trips; each feels a great bitterness. At first they appear cruel and cold. But then there is the revelation of their own pain.
It's set in El Paso again.
Yes, in a period of two days. They experiment with people to find out, as they say, where the shit is, and they do some very cruel things. A kind of initiation to immunize themselves from the pain they feel. But they can't Escape it, finally. And again there are the symbols: Confession plays an important part; there's the symbol of a church window depicting an angel grappling with evil. The four experiment with drugs—acid, mescaline, cocaine.
How important is the homosexual theme?
It's not as major as in my first three books, but it is still very powerful, submerged…. Now I'm working on two books: one is called Autobiography, a Novel—and it deals with the varying persona of autobiography as novel, novel as autobiography; in it I'm returning to the first-person account, as in City of Night. And it explores shifting identities, and varying "truths." I'm also working on a novel called Jesus and Judas, which depicts the betrayal as based on a homosexual affair between Jesus and Judas.
Don't you expect some really God reviews doing that?
Why shouldn't Jesus be depicted as a homosexual? Why should he be less if he was a homosexual? There are all the elements: Mary as powerful mother, Joseph as vague father. The book opens with John the Baptist baptising a revivalist-type crowd by the Jordan River. Mary appears, leading a beautiful 15-year-old child, John is dazzled; he says to the boy: "I have need to be baptized by you." The boy laughs, and in my version it's Mary who says: "This is my beloved Son," and it is John who answers: "In Whom I am well pleased." Another young man is romping in the water—Judas; Jesus and Judas disappear. Along the banks of the river, they begin to wrestle, and soon the motions of wrestling become the motions of lovemaking. Playfully they roam the streets, while John goes about proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. The two young men meet Mary Magdalene while she is being persecuted by a mob. By pretending he's the savior, Jesus frees her; she leads them to a hill where they eat hallucinogenic buds. It's then that many of the Biblical revelations occur to Jesus—especially the temptation by Satan—so many Biblical things are like acid trips, incidentally. At a time of great hallucinated vulnerability, Mary tells Jesus he's the son of God, divinely conceived. It's at that point that Jesus, who with Judas has been roaming about with revolutionaries, abandons his humanity and becomes religiously obsessed. Judas betrays him with a kiss…. My Jesus in this book is extremely beautiful, and sexual at first. That's what has always bummed me out about the Jesus they force on us, a sexless man. Mine in this book is very sexual. He and Judas and Magdalene, tripping on the hallucinogenic buds, make beautiful sex, all naked, rubbing mud on each other…. And I shift back and forth to the Palace of Herod; Salome is a ten-year-old painted child, Herod is impotent, Salome tries to arouse him; if she can, he'll give her what she wants, and she asks for the head of John the Baptist.
Will this book be as heavily existential as the others?
Yes; Jesus as existential figure; but in order to save himself from the black revelation of extinction, he moves to the messianic acceptance of himself, his resurrection.
Okay. I see a lot of Tennessee Williams in your bookcases. Is he an influence?
Absolutely. What I like about him is the giant dragon emotions; the raging emotions; the screaming about life.
You like Streetcar?
Very much. But I think his best play is Suddenly Last Summer.
It's the one that is fully realized, that moves relentlessly to violence and doesn't move back. Streetcar backs away from the building violence—it ends subdued, cowed. Suddenly Last Summer doesn't cop out; it moves to that hideous violence.
Would you get into what you feel generally about the academic world and its relationship to literature in general and to your literature in particular.
In general I think it has about as much relationship to literature as it has to life: zero. But that's exaggerated: I know several teachers in universities who are very fine, alive, relevant…. I know some of my writing is required reading in some schools.
Does that please you?
It depends on the course and who teaches it.
So you like your books to be taught if in the right courses by the right people.
Yes. But it would bum me out if some straight guy would try to get into my stuff unless, of course, that meant his head was changing, but I don't think that would happen; I think for anybody to become interested in my work in the academic world their heads would already have to be in pretty good shape; I mean in the sense of my material.
Do you know whether City of Night is taught very much in universities?
I know it's required in some.
One thing that struck me when you were talking about Baldwin having a double consciousness, being black and homosexual, comes up again. Couldn't you say you have a dual consciousness too?
Absolutely: homosexual and Chicano. I think it makes for a special sensibility.
Do you want to say anything about the Chicano movement?
I feel very much a part of it; but I also feel I've been much more important to the homosexual movement because of my books than I have been to the Chicano movement, although most of my articles are about the Chicano minority…. It's pretty heavy, being a Chicano in Texas; you certainly know what it's like to be hated when you're a kid. Mine was a peculiar trip. My father was of Scot descent—and sometimes people would start putting Mexicans down right in front of me, and so I had to get into hassles; and then defensively I'd go around telling people right away that I was Mexican…. Especially in the small hickish towns, the fucking Texans are so ignorant in all their weird bigotry, so ugly in their hatred.
We've gotten through all these questions except one. When I was in John Graves' creative-writing class he said a writer, because he's one person, must in effect choose some aspect of reality and then through art make that his reality, and how do you dig that?
I think it's probably true in my case. I don't know that one can use one aspect of reality. When the aspect which one focuses on is so overwhelming—like for example being black or Chicano or homosexual in America—I think that holds true…. Right now there are beautiful things happening among homosexuals—the openness of identity, no longer hiding—although we have our own "Uncle Toms," but it's necessary to pity them. The journey to finally identify oneself as a homosexual—it's a heavy one, man—and a great relief finally to be able to identify yourself openly. Have you ever had an experience so relieving that—…
I don't think so; I've always been a part of every establishment majority.
Wow, what a bummer. Now's the time for minorities to feel sorry for you, man!
But I think I can understand how you feel.
Finally to assert oneself as a homosexual—that's liberating as a member of a minority that has produced some of the greatest men and women in the world. Not that everything about the homosexual world as it exists now is beautiful—it would be dishonest to say that; it can be a cruel world.
That's the feeling one gets from your books.
I know—and that's freaked out a lot of people. But I was being honest—and I was writing about a segment of that world which I know and which can be savage. But that doesn't indict the homosexual. It largely indicts all the ignorance we've had to overcome. And what a battle!
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6309
SOURCE: "Religious Alienation and 'Homosexual Consciousness' in City of Night and Go Tell It on the Mountain," in College English, Vol. 36, No. 3, November, 1974, pp. 369-80.
[In the following essay, Giles compares Rechy's City of Night with James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, arguing that Rechy's work has greater significance because it emphasizes homosexuality over ethnicity.]
When it appeared in 1963, John Rechy's City of Night received much critical acclaim; and it has continued to be regarded as an "underground classic." However, much of the praise for the novel has carried an implication of artlessness—too often critics have discussed it in terminology that would restrict it to the level of "reporting." It is obvious that a part of City of Night's initial impact was due to its detailed account of a "side of life" largely excluded from American letters. Such a frank, even brutal narrative of homosexual hustling was new and unprecedented. In addition, Rechy's personal image has encouraged a tendency to view the novel as sensational "reporting." Rechy is half-Chicano, half-Anglo; he was born into poverty in El Paso; he has been a hustler; he is a devotee of the beautiful body. He, like the unnamed main character in City of Night, has had a personal vision of nihilistic horror during Mardi Gras.
It is not surprising that critics often discuss Rechy's first book as if it were simply autobiography disguised as fiction, but it is a vast oversimplification to do so. Like Thomas Wolfe, whom he greatly admires, Rechy is an artist and not a reporter. City of Night is built around a complex, definable structure. The device of shifting between "subjective" chapters focusing upon the central character and "objective" chapters concerned with persons met by the narrator-hustler is comparable to the structure of The Grapes of Wrath and of much of Dos Passos' writing. It is interesting that Rechy admires Steinbeck and Dos Passos and that they too have suffered from critics who want to label them as social commentators rather than artists. The key to the art of City of Night is the relationship between the "subjective" and the "objective" chapters. A war is raging in the should of the central character, and its resolution is made possible by his interaction with the "minor" characters who appear throughout. Probably a major factor in the failure of most critics to comprehend this structure is the aesthetic completeness of the "objective" chapters. The Miss Destiny and Sylvia chapters, for instance, work so successfully as short stories that it is possible to miss their importance to the main character's spiritual struggle.
The organizing motif of the novel is the "confession," and each "objective" chapter should be seen as essentially a confession of pain and suffering. It is crucial that these confessions of personal horror are spontaneously delivered to the central character, because his reaction to them is the real thematic basis of City of Night.
When he leaves El Paso, he believes that he has denied virtually everything—Catholicism, any ultimate hope for personal "salvation," self-pity, and even compassion for others. The brutality of death has so horrified him that it alone seems a reality worthy of confrontation. It is almost inevitable that he adopt the hustler role because it allows him to receive tribute to the beauty of his body without the necessity of any reciprocation. He is determined to give nothing, to receive everything. By the end of the novel, he has come to a kind of epiphany—a spiritual realization that he cannot deny his compassion for others. This internal shift comes about gradually and only after a great deal of pain.
Having been intrigued for some time by the highly complex art of City of Night (as well as Numbers and This Day's Death, I asked in 1971 for an interview with Rechy. He granted my request, although he did not customarily do interviews, largely because of an intelligent and calm review of This Day's Death which my wife had written for a Texas periodical. Wanda Giles and I flew to El Paso in January, 1972; and, because Rechy is an extremely kind man, we were rewarded with not only the interview, but a two-day talk with him and several drives through El Paso and Juarez and a visit with a writer friend of Rechy whom we had always admired. (Interview Published in Chicago Review, 25 [Summer, 1973], 19-31).
The result of the experience was a seemingly contradictory one—it made me more aware than ever of the strong autobiographical element in City of Night, and it heightened my appreciation of the artistic complexity of the novel's structure. Such a result was possible largely because Rechy is equally eloquent in discussing his past (most especially the brutal and painful times) and his art.
There is a statue of Christ on a mountain (Cristo Rey) outside El Paso, and as Rechy, Wanda, and I stood on the road below it, John talked:
I used to go up there, right to the foot of that statue when I was a kid. It's not safe any more, you can get robbed now, but when I was a kid you could go, all the way up. Christ, religion, you know are so fucking important in a Chicano kid's life….
Religion, especially Catholicism, is extremely important in City of Night. The church in the novel is a destructive force which imposes unnatural restraints and a false concept of "sin" upon man and lies to him about immortality. Catholicism attempts to repress sexuality except for the purpose of procreation. Rechy views such a teaching as unforgivable on two levels. Sex, the most powerful force in life, should not be seen as something existing merely to serve another purpose. Moreover, children born to the destitute are doomed to lives of hunger and suffering.
A critical early scene in City of Night involves the narrator's seduction of a girl "up the mountain of Cristo Rey, dominated at the top by the coarse, well-surrounded statue of a primitive-faced Christ." This introduction to sex is anything but a joyous experience for the narrator ("And it was somewhere about that time that the narcissistic pattern of my life began.") In fact, intercourse with the girl beneath the "primitive" Christ serves primarily to isolate sex as the focal point of the narrator's rebellion against his repressive and suffocating childhood. Two personalities epitomize the polarities of the narrator's experience: his father, who in paranoia over a shattered musical career lashes out in hatred at everyone around him, then later approaches them with a warped, pathetic overture of "love"; and his mother, who offers a "blind carnivorous love" which is ultimately more damaging than the father's hatred. The father's failures as a musician, and most significantly as a man, are responsible for the poverty and the horror of the narrator's childhood. He causes a child to be brought into the world, offers him nothing approaching love or understanding, attempts to stab him with a butcher knife, and then in grotesque remorse takes the child on his knee in a terrifying ritual of "affection." Thus, he represents the world as the child sees it; he is reality—destitute, self-pitying, and hating.
The mother's "carnivorous love" is even more to be feared. She gives herself sexually to the husband, and then attempts to protect her children from the horror into which they are born. Repeatedly giving her body to the hate-filled musician, she attempts to keep her soul untouched. She wants to envelop her children in that undefiled soul so that they will not see the danger so relentlessly threatening them. It is as if each child she brings into the world represents another opportunity to triumph vicariously over the poverty and pain of her life. In addition, she is giving another soul to that church she loves so much (her room is filled with Madonnas).
The "protection" she forces upon her children is more insidious than the father's open hatred precisely because it is based upon a lie. Poverty is a constant in the children's lives; and reality sometimes strikes with the deadly, unmistakable immediacy of a butcher knife. Thus it is suicidal to hide, and the mother is attempting to send her children defenseless and completely vulnerable into the horror personified by their father. Moreover, the church itself is based upon an unforgiveable lie—the denial of death. While the mother accepts the immortality of the soul as a doctrine so self-evident that questions about it are absurd, the narrator bitterly and painfully rejects any such belief. The death and subsequent decay of his dog, Winnie, are the catalyst for his repudiation of the mother's faith. The dog dies, is buried, and is then uncovered by a Texas windstorm. During the animal's illness the mother says: "Dogs don't go to Heaven, they haven't got souls … the body just disappears, becomes dirt." When the child sees the decayed body, he acknowledges much more than she intended: "There was no soul, the body would rot, and there would be Nothing left of Winnie." Or of any man or woman. The soul is a lie, immortality is a lie; death and nothingness are the only truths.
I suggested to John that either I didn't understand the Winnie incident, or that it was not sufficient to carry such a heavy symbolic load. He answered that the episode was real. He did have a dog named Winnie, it did die, was uncovered by the West Texas wind, and he did see the rotting carcass; and he did react in the manner described in the novel: "I knew then that all the crap about the immortal soul was a lie, man. That there is no salvation, and that all anyone does is attempt to find a substitute for salvation, and there isn't any. By the way, that's a phrase that will appear in every one of my books: no substitute for salvation."
The maternal "protection" must be spurned. Reality must not only be confronted, but defied. A meaningless act of sex under the very eyes of Christ is the narrator's initial movement away from his mother's "carnivorous love." "Dry lust" performed on a desolate landscape beneath a "dead god." The narrator embraces what his mother and her church would define as "sin" in order to confront reality. There is no pleasure in the experience partly because that was never its purpose. In addition, while it begins his rejection of his mother and her church, it is not nearly sufficient as a rebellion against the father and the world he personifies. "The narcissistic pattern" of his life begins here because the narrator must exact homage from the reality that has always treated him viciously and will ultimately kill him. Before he is a decaying corpse, his personal beauty must be celebrated, again and again. He cannot give (in the brutality of his childhood, he has given too much already), but he must receive. People must perpetually recognize and desire the beauty of his body.
Thus begins his life as a homosexual hustler. The narrator has his first homosexual experience in a bus station in Dallas, but hustling inevitably will be "escape" from the moment that "the narcissistic pattern" began. Hustling offers the kind of gratification he demands: money paid by strangers for the privilege of his body, no necessity for any responsiveness on his part, and innumerable anonymous "contacts." The pattern of the novel takes the form then of a quest which can never end except in death. The narrator's odyssey from El Paso to New York to Los Angeles to Chicago and, finally, to New Orleans represents his defiance of that ugliness and death personified by his father. Death will, of course, ultimately triumph and his body decay; but, before that, he will have exacted tribute for his transitory beauty.
He is determined to be faithful to the code of the hustler—to be passive, to give nothing except his body. But he can never totally succeed. Deny it as he might, the narrator possesses a compassion so strong that nothing can finally destroy it—not even himself. Despite the detached and unresponsive manner in which he engages in sex, he hears confessions from the other characters. There is something in him which occasions sudden outpourings of grief and pain from others—the recitals of what his mother's church would call "sins," but which he recognizes instead as statements of desperate combat with the same reality he is defying. For most of the book, he is puzzled by, and ashamed of, this compassion. In New York, when Pete and "the Professor" suddenly and unpredictably ask for a commitment of feeling from the narrator, he retreats. The retreat is understood as an inevitability by all involved—Pete and the central character mutually shun each other, and "the Professor" knows that he has lost his most recent "angel." Hustlers give no emotion: they take money. (John said that one early reviewer of City of Night was disappointed with the novel "'because it failed to show the total homosexual experience.' I never meant it to, of course. It is a book about hustling, one segment of the homosexual world. Can you imagine anyone asking a book to show the total heterosexual experience?") Still, the narrator cannot deny that something in him encourages self-revelation from others.
The journey to California is, in part, an attempt to become the "total hustler" and to suppress this compassion. Geographical distance doesn't change anything that easily, of course. Miss Destiny tells him her personal nightmare:
Oh, God!… Sometimes when Im very high and sitting maybe at the 1-2-3, I imagine that an angel suddenly appears and stands on the balcony where the band is playing—and the angel says, "All right, boys and girls, this is it, the world is ending, and Heaven or Hell will be to spend eternity just as you are now, in the same place, among the same people—Forever!" And hearing this, Im terrified and I know suddenly what that means—and I start to run but I cant run fast enough for the evil angel, he sees me and stops me and Im Caught….
Rechy has read No Exit and acknowledges Sartre as an influence. What is most important in Miss Destiny's nightmare, however, is her negative vision of "angels" and "Heaven." "Angels" to her are as "evil" as his mother's church is to the narrator. Only "the Professor's" mortal "angels" are positive. Next it is Chuck who confides in the narrator—he talks about his dream of "escape" to a frontier. The narrator knows only too well the reality of Chuck's fantasized west.
But the main character continues to struggle against his compassion—one can scarcely be a priest and a complete hustler at the same time. He wins an initial victory in Los Angeles when, after much hesitation, he is able to rob a "score" who virtually begs to be robbed. However, San Francisco's sado-masochistic community is the setting for his ultimate attempt to destroy his decency. Borrowing terminology from his mother, he describes his abortive journey into the s-m community as "a suicide of the soul." The Neil chapter represents the novel's turning point, for it is with the masochist Neil that the central character comes the closest to repudiating all feeling and compassion. For a while, Neil's weakness affects the narrator just as they both wish it to—it stimulates anger and the desire to inflict pain. But only for a while, because the narrator ultimately must leave Neil's world. The departure cannot be delayed after Neil, suddenly, unaccountably, confesses to the narrator. The masochist's story of a hated, brutal father parallels the "youngman's" life and, of course, he can only walk out of Neil's apartment in helpless, bewildered pity.
After the encounter with Neil, the narrator no longer wants to run from his "priestly" side. Ironically, Neil represented the one truly "liberating" experience in his life. After Neil, he can no longer deny a bond with humanity and a concern for the pains of all the frightened, lonely people in all "the cities of night." Neil, too, had had a father who failed him brutally. Everyone is united in suffering:
And I know what it is I have searched beyond Neil's immediate world of sought pain—something momentarily lost—something found again in the park, the fugitive rooms, the derelict jungles: the world of uninvited, unasked-for pain … found now, liberatingly, even in the memory of Neil himself.
And I could think in that moment, for the first time really:
It's possible to hate the filthy world and still love it with an abstract pitying love.
He is still a hustler, but, in non-sexual moments, he now wants to hear the "confessions" of others if doing so will ease their pain. In New Orleans he encourages Sylvia to admit having denied her homosexual son; and he comforts the dying drag queen Kathy in every way he can. The world is still "ugly," but the people in it are to be "pitied," and even "loved" (if only "abstractly") rather than despised. There is much left to be repudiated—in effect, the faceless, all-powerful society which has labelled some people as "criminals" or "diseased" simply because their sexual appetites fall outside the accepted "norm." Sylvia was once a part of that society, and she destroyed her son by her acceptance of its vicious intolerance. She has been doing penance for the only real "sin" (denying another's human worth) ever since:
God damn it—I don't give a damn! Either in makeup, either like a queen—in the highest, brightest screaming drag—with sequins and beads—…. Either like that—or hustling a score, trying to prove with another man, because of my … words still ringing in his ears—trying that way to prove that I was right, that he is a man…. Even—… even if he has to prove it by finding another man who will pay him for his … masculinity—…. Even with a bloody gash on his head, proving it by violence. That way … or with another youngman, his—lover—…. Any way! Any shape! I don't give a damn!…. It's just that—God damn it!—I want to see him—if only once more—just once—to tell him—to tell him Im sorry.
When Mardi Gras explodes, the narrator is confronted with an intense vision of horror that almost destroys him. Mardi Gras is a "celebration" which allows homosexuals (even the drag queen) to come out from hiding without fear of legal reprisals; however, they pay a perhaps more degrading penalty. The "tourists" come to view "the gay world" in precisely the spirit in which they would go to a freak show. The queens, always desperate for attention, get it by posing grotesquely for the flashing cameras of Des Moines, Birmingham, and Tulsa ("Miss Ange, in Scarlett O'Hara plantation tones, says to the man taking pictures: 'Now me! Take My picture!'… Muttering 'bitch,' the other queens glare at Miss Ange as she poses in her billowing ballgown—as if she has just returned, triumphantly, to Tara.")
The narrator attempts to drown his vision of the chaotic, dehumanizing nightmare in an orgy of anonymous sex. The attempt fails, and he is reminded of the inevitability of death and decay more strongly than at any time since his childhood:
A band of red-dressed men and women in black-tentacled masks dance prematurely in the maddened street—red like flashing rubies crushed together, angry flames burning insanely bright before turning into smoke. Redly…. Roses pressed against each other in screaming shapes of red, red shrieking red. And like a flock of startled red-winged bats, the group disbands in separate scarlet bodies caracoling along the streets to join other screaming groups.
I asked John if it was accidental that this paragraph reminded me of "The Masque of the Red Death." He said that it wasn't: "Of course I'm influenced by Poe, man. Always, since a kid. Poe was into what I'm into—death and what it is, how you deal with it. I meant the language of that paragraph to remind the reader of "The Masque of the Red Death." Do you know any American writer more preoccupied with death than Poe and I?"
Poe has a subtle, but real, importance for American homosexual writers. His pale, emaciated, lifeless heroines such as Ligeia and Madeline Usher are implicit repudiations of female sexuality. Poe could only write about heterosexual relationships in a prevailing atmosphere of death and decay. Because of the time in which he wrote, he dared not treat homosexuality openly; nevertheless, it would not be a too farfetched reading of "The Fall of the House of Usher" to argue that Poe's emphasis upon Roderick's several "abnormalities" and inability to continue the family line has homosexual overtones.
In Rechy's novel Mardi Gras soon becomes a ceremony of dehumanization and death. Kathy, the beautiful, taunts a tourist and then abruptly lifts her dress to reveal her male sex organs. Her act is a challenge: she knows that the man wishes to see a freak, and she is determined to be a stunningly beautiful one. Later, the narrator sees her smiling and asks why: "'Because,'… 'I'm going to die.'"
The narrator, more vulnerable to such horror since his experience with Neil, attempts to flee from such reality by giving and accepting a love that is not "abstract" and "passionless." With Jeremy, he tries very hard to "give." But, if he can never totally suppress his "priestly" self, he cannot deny his hustler identity either. Ultimately, Jeremy represents something too close to what his mother had offered—an unreal and suffocating "protection." Ironically, after leaving Jeremy and passing out in the hell of Mardi Gras, the narrator wakes up in the cold light of dawn and turns for one last time to his mother's faith. He calls four Catholic churches (one named "The Church of Eternal Succor") and is offered no support ("You must be drunk" "Call back when we are open"). Finally one young priest says simply, "I know…. Yes, I know!" Since the structure of City of Night is much more complex than is usually recognized, it is easy to miss the point that this Catholic indifference underscores the necessity of the narrator's leaving Jeremy. There is finally no real protection—brutality, viciousness, and death cannot be escaped.
Knowing this now in a way he has never really known it before, the narrator returns "home" to El Paso. His quest has been, in part, a success: he has exacted much homage to his physical beauty, and he has confronted that which he set out to challenge. The struggle, however, has been at a cost he could never have anticipated before his meeting with Neil:
And I was experiencing that only Death, which is the symbolic death of the soul. It's the death of the soul, not of the body—it's what creates ghosts, and in those moments I felt myself becoming a ghost, drained of all that makes this journey to achieve some kind of salvation bearable under this universal sentence of death.
When he first left El Paso, he was attempting a "suicide of the soul"; but then he discovered from "the Professor," Miss Destiny, "Someone" in Santa Monica, Sylvia, and most importantly from Neil, that there is a worse horror than the decaying physical body. These people have all, in their own ways, taught him that there is something that he will call "sin"—the humiliation and destruction of others because they are different. He has seen in Mardi Gras evidence that he lives in a country that is truly dead—void of compassion, and dedicated to mocking those it labels grotesque.
So he returns "home" to El Paso, to his mother. But it will only be for a short time because inevitably "I'll leave this city again." The next time he journeys forth it will be as a hustler. With "scores" he will play the role—unresponsive, distant. At other times, however, he will not deny his "priestly side"—he will listen to "confessions" of pain and loss. His life will never be totally "narcissistic" again—it cannot be after the experience with Neil. With Neil he came close to what truly would have been a "suicide of the soul," but he drew back. Never again will he even approach such a spiritual self-destruction. Thus the novel ends with a protest against death, and against the suffering that overwhelms so many people before their bodies are "rotting" in the grave: "It isn't fair! Why can't dogs go to heaven?"
John Rechy is an amazing mixture of vanity ("As a rule, I always brag on myself at least once when I talk to someone. Otherwise, it wouldn't seem like me."), painful sensitivity, gentleness and humor. His sense of humor is particularly surprising to someone who meets him after reading the novels; but it is irreverently and unpredictably there. When he took Wanda and me to the El Paso airport, we turned to say good-bye. He suddenly reached out and touched each of us on the shoulder, and I realized then how carefully, even elaborately, he had avoided any physical contact with either of us before. We are heterosexuals, Anglo-Saxons; our backgrounds are Protestant; and we come from an academic world that has been no more understanding of John or his writing than any other segment of society. He did not know whether we might misinterpret even accidental contact and visibly recoil. He did not want to risk the embarrassment to us or the pain to himself. I understood, then, something of what his life had been. ("You can't know, Jim, the crap of being a Chicano in all the ugly little Texas towns where all they know, or have over known, is hate!") and how much trust, gentleness, and friendship was offered in that light and only touch.
While John Rechy is, of course, correct in his assertion that City of Night was never meant to be "the complete homosexual novel," one sees an extraordinary number of parallels between it and the work of other homosexual novelists. The frustration of human emotion and compassion by a repressive social order permeates the works of Carson McCullers (for instance, the military mentality combines with the fundamentalistic south in Reflections in a Golden Eye to produce a grotesquely crippling world). A male child growing up either in a world dominated by a threatening father figure or in one totally devoid of adult masculine models is a recurring motif in homosexual literature (it is interesting that Truman Capote, who largely backs away from overt discussion of homosexuality in such books as Other Voices, Other Rooms and A Christmas Memory, consistently writes about a male child in a world largely populated by adult women). However, the American writer who most resembles Rechy in certain vital ways is James Baldwin.
Baldwin, like Rechy, belongs to two "minority groups." He is gay and black; Rechy is gay and Chicano. In our interview, Rechy talked about his sense of identification with Baldwin and his belief that he and the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain shared a unique consciousness resulting from their status as members of the two "rejected" groups.
It is an interesting fact, however, that neither writer often unites ethnic and homosexual protest in his fiction. Except in the first section of City of Night, Chicano identity is not stressed in Rechy's fiction. He does publish nonfiction essays frequently in such journals as The Texas Observer, essays centered around unmistakable Chicano pride. Baldwin really attempted only once to bring gay and black consciousness together in fiction; but Another Country was attacked viciously by black spokesmen such as Eldridge Cleaver for this precise reason. His most overtly homosexual novel, Giovanni's Room, discards the black identity theme completely. As gay spokesmen, both Rechy and Baldwin face various pressures from their ethnic groups. The "macho" aspect of the Chicano movement mitigates against Rechy's homosexual fiction as a vehicle for "brown pride"; and the attacks upon Baldwin's homosexuality by Amiri Imamu Baraka and Don L. Lee as well as by Cleaver illustrate the hostility of black militancy to gay consciousness. Increasingly Baldwin has chosen to move in a different direction than Rechy's. He has dramatically played down the homosexual content of his fiction.
The early (and the best) Baldwin, however, did not underplay the homosexual theme in favor of a militant blackness. Go Tell It On The Mountain, a beautifully subtle novel, rests upon most of the major themes found in the first section of City of Night. John Grimes, like the main character in Rechy's work, is threatened by a religion that labels sex as evil except in marriage and by a father so warped by self-hate that he lashes out at the souls of everyone around him. Perhaps the most important stylistic device in Baldwin's novel is the constant repetition of such phrases as "the natural man" and "the old Adam." Gabriel and the Church of the Fire Baptized use these terms negatively in condemnation of man's sexual nature. They see "the natural man" as a part of human nature that is inherently "sinful" and which consequently must be repressed. Gabriel, who has been most unsuccessful in repressing his own "old Adam," transfers his guilt to his second wife, Elizabeth, and her illegitimate son, John.
John then grows up in a world much like that of the child in City of Night—a hating father, a mother who offers inadequate protection, and a church that preaches the truly "unnatural" repression of all sexual desire. Rechy's southwestern Catholic church and Baldwin's northern Protestant "temple" produce parallel effects upon their minority members: by preaching an "unnatural" repression and distrust of sex, they reinforce the feelings of inferiority induced in Chicanos and blacks by the dominant racist society. More important, however, they force the sexually healthy youth of their church to "go underground" with their sexual desires.
In a last desperate effort to gain his father's love, John undergoes a "conversion." But, significantly, while he thrashes around upon the floor speaking in tongues, he is thinking about Gabriel's hypocrisy and brutality. When the "conversion" results only in further rejection by his father, John knows that he must find some other salvation than that offered either by the church or by Gabriel.
He turns then to the older boy Elisha in what is clearly a subconscious homosexual yearning. Elisha doesn't understand when John asks him to "pray for me," and the desperate youth pleads again, "'No, pray for me.'" Elisha is still unaware of what John is asking (John, of course, does not yet fully realize it either) and abandons the young boy to the threatening presence of Gabriel. This final scene between John and Elisha is comparable, in a subtle way, to the "confession scenes" in City of Night. Baldwin has made clear the real, if unrealized, nature of the John-Elisha attraction in a sensual wrestling match early in the novel. In fact, the John-Elisha theme is basic to the homosexual theme in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Earlier in the novel Elisha has been humiliated in front of the church because he is suspected of having a sexual interest in a female member of the congregation. The affair has a strong effect on Elisha. When telling John about the dangers of "the old Adam," he accuses the young boy of still thinking about girls. The novel opens by stressing John's guilt over the "sin" of masturbation. No homosexual attraction is ever admitted, or perhaps ever realized by, either John or Elisha; however, the wrestling match, written with an undeniable overtone of sexual attraction, makes it clear that, even if subconsciously, this is a key ingredient in their relationship. The wrestling match has long been a significant device for underscoring covert homosexual attraction (e.g. Lawrence's Women in Love).
John's plea to Elisha at the end to "pray for me" is both a subconscious affirmation of the young boy's physical, not spiritual, love for his older brother in the church, and a "confession" that the religious salvation which he seems to have just won is already doomed. Gabriel has already made it clear that no love will come to John from him, and love is, above all, what the boy needs. His earlier masturbation is evidence that such love cannot long remain "abstract" and "spiritual."
Even though it is much less overt. Go Tell It on the Mountain parallels City of Night in several ways: it weds the theme of homosexuality to the theme of an oppressive religion which attacks and even tries to deny human love and sexuality. Both novels contain hate-ridden father figures. John's final words to Elisha are comparable to the "confessions" that give Rechy's book its meaning. Both novels end with a denial of the religion ("Dogs don't go to heaven") and a yearning for meaningful human contact, and both are clearly autobiographical.
Perhaps one reason for Baldwin's comparatively covert development of the homosexuality theme has nothing to do with pressure from the black power movement. As he revealed in an early essay about André Gide, Baldwin has simply never been as comfortable with his homosexuality as Rechy.
In "The Male Prison," contained in the 1961 collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin attempts to come to grips with his feelings about André Gide. Baldwin admits to an initial "dislike" of Gide largely because of the Frenchman's "Protestantism" and his homosexuality. Initially, it was Gide's blunt honesty about this homosexuality that made Baldwin uncomfortable:
And his homosexuality, I felt, was his own affair which he ought to have kept hidden from us, or, if he needed to be so explicit, he ought at least to have managed to be a little more scientific…. He ought to have leaned less heavily on the examples of dead, great men, of vanished cultures, and he ought to have known that the examples provided by natural history do not go far toward illuminating the physical, psychological and moral complexities faced by men.
In comparison, Rechy talks proudly about the great tradition of homosexual art produced by many "dead, great men." While admitting that someone needs to "assess" Gide's work, Baldwin pleads that he is not the one because "I confess that a great deal of what I felt concerning his work I still feel." What he "still feels" can be surmised from the rest of the essay. Gide loved his Madeleine as "an ideal," Baldwin writes, and not as a woman. Madeleine became then the personification of the writer's heaven and hell. The idealization of her brought Gide close to heaven, but his failure to love her as a woman produced a hell for both of them—a safe hell for Gide because it allowed him "to feel guilty about her instead of the boys on the Piazza d'Espagne."
There was dishonesty involved here, Baldwin feels, but a dishonesty that was necessary for Gide's sanity:
The really horrible thing about the phenomenon of present-day homosexuality, the horrible thing which lies curled like a worm at the heart of Gide's trouble and his work and the reason that he so clung to Madeleine, is that today's unlucky deviate can only save himself by the most tremendous exertion of all his forces from falling into an underworld in which he never meets either men or women, where it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend, where the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased. When this possibility has ceased, so has the possibility of growth.
City of Night and John Rechy give the lie to this argument. For it is precisely this "underworld" that Rechy's central character, who would never call himself an "unlucky deviate," seeks out; and he discovers initially, in spite of himself, that he cannot escape "genuine human involvement there," with the result that he "grows" through compassion and love for all the lonely people in all the "cities of night." He even comes to "love" the world, if only "abstractly" and "pityingly," because of the way in which people defined by "normal society" as "neither men nor women" endure their pain. Later in the essay Baldwin writes:
Madeleine kept open for him [Gide] a kind of door of hope, of possibility, the possibility of entering into communion with another sex. This door, which is the door to life and air and freedom from the tyranny of one's own personality, must be kept open….
Rechy's central character needs no such door because he escapes "the tyranny of his own personality" through simple acceptance of, and compassion for, others.
Ironically, Baldwin's work exhibits much of the discomfort with his own homosexuality that he attributes to Gide. Rechy has long since transcended such discomfort (he would never write an essay like "The Male Prison"). In relation to the rest of American homosexual writing, Rechy is most comparable to Genet in Europe—the man who has found a kind of sainthood through immersion in what "normal society" defines as "criminality."
Still, in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin produced a major homosexual novel. Like City of Night, it focuses upon the role of a dehumanizing religion in the development of a gay consciousness. Like City of Night, it utilizes certain aspects of that religion (the confessional, the conversion) as artistic devices in the novel. Thus, despite largely following the path of black pride instead of gay consciousness in his later writing, Baldwin made a significant early contribution to homosexual fiction. John Rechy's contribution is both more overt and more important because, in fiction, he has decided to emphasize his homosexuality instead of his ethnic identity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2974
SOURCE: "John Rechy's Tormented World," in Southwest Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 78-85.
[In the following essay, Satterfield explores the alienated characters and hellish atmosphere which Rechy has created in his first five novels.]
In addition to his nonfiction opus, The Sexual Outlaw, John Rechy has written five novels that vividly describe the physical and emotional terrain of the misfit, novels that explore with varying degrees of success the terrifying landscape of the taunted and tortured, of the desperate and deviant, of those who suffer the pain of "lost" life—in short, the damned. What makes Rechy's characters different from the "outsider" figure popular in American literature is that Rechy's people are alienated from themselves and nature as well as society; and what makes Rechy's world crueler than, for instance, Dreiser's is its unrelenting hostility. Rechy evokes not just the indifference of society to pain and suffering, but the outright malignancy of the world at large, a world in which death is final, religion is false, and love is seldom found. Whether we confirm it or not, that world is recognizable, and Rechy's presentation of it is worth examining—in moral terms, if no other.
City of Night, Rechy's first novel—and the only one to receive much critical attention—is a homosexual odyssey or Wanderjahr that begins in El Paso, moves to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans, then ends "American style," as Leslie Fiedler has casually noted, "with a return to Mom and Texas." Containing one of the most lugubrious collections of grotesques in modern literature, this book unveils the subculture of male prostitutes, clients, queens, and hustlers who do not love but cling "to each other in a kind of franticness" that is characteristic of Rechy's world, a jungle of fear, emptiness, and anxiety where there is no salvation. (I use "grotesque" in essentially the same sense that Flannery O'Connor used it in her essay, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction." It applies to characters and experiences the writer makes alive "which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.") Because of its subject matter and the sexual explicitness of the prose, this book is often referred to as an "underground classic."
But Rechy is a moralist, not merely a countercultural revolutionary, and his use of "sensational" material is not for the easy purpose of sensation, as those critics who belabor the superficial suggest. Underneath all the ugliness and perversion of his novels is a childlike innocence and remarkable sensitivity. Rechy shows us the world as he sees it, without coating the stark reality with lies that will obscure and make it palatable to a culture so steeped in duplicity and dissimulation that it seldom sees the truth, to a nation so anxious that it voraciously consumes books of sexual content simply because it refuses to face the truth of sexuality or to deal honestly with it. Rechy is outraged at the world, and I contend that he writes "outrageous" books in an effort to jolt society in the groin of its hypocrisy. Like the guileless child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," he sees the truth, but he does not state it quietly; he screams, "Look! See!"
And what we see is the pain and loneliness of people without love; what we see is the terrible consequence of the failure to love; and what I hope we can see as a result is the absolute necessity of love in a world without redemption, a world of franticness and death.
Franticness, a familiar word in Rechy novels, describes the ambience of his characters; also, the word savage and some form of ferocious appear as often as implacable does in Faulkner, helping to reflect the feeling of menace that Rechy draws from society. Not only is the world hostile, Rechy declares, but the nature of existence is horrifyingly brutal:
Years, years, years ago, I had stared at my dead dog, buried under the littered ground of our barren backyard and dug out again, and I had seen in revulsion the decaying face. Now, as if I had dug beneath the surface of the world, I saw that world's face.
And it was just as hideous.
In Rechy, civilization is a mask on the face of wildness, and wildness is mere animal existence without tenderness and love. Without love, Rechy seems to avouch, we are savages, and his novels manifest this belief. He makes his vision apparent by shock, like Flannery O'Connor, who said: "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
Most of Rechy's characters are homosexuals, which means they are not only deviants but outcasts from society, and all are deeply troubled. They are in conflict with society and in opposition to nature itself, as evinced in their homosexuality and "perversions." (I am going to view sexual deviation as both a symbol and a symptom, because I believe Rechy perceives it this way.) Most of the protagonists are fatherless in the literal sense, but all are orphans in the emotional sense, just as they all are lost and homeless in the large sense. They do not belong—to anybody or anything—and they agonize, wanting love and getting only sex (and it sometimes an expression of hate); wanting acceptance and getting only tolerance or exploration; wanting life, but feeling death. They live in a state of ferity disguised by the thin veneer (mask) of civilization, which is easily stripped away to lay bare a savage reality.
But that reality exists, and Rechy implies it exists because we do not meet our full potential as human beings, because we do not care enough, love enough, feel enough for ourselves and our fellow human beings. We make ourselves animals by failing to be human. Recurrent words and phrases connected with the wild and primitive convey this impression unmistakably. In all Rechy's novels the use of animal terms to describe human behavior is consistent, and is especially used in conjunction with the sexual acts. I believe these acts are associated with brutality, savagery, and wildness not just because sex is an animal drive, but because the acts are dehumanized. Without love the participants are groping savages, inchoate creatures longing for the affection that will temper and humanize their lives. (The animal imagery identifies sexual behavior as negative and debased without the author's having to make overt statements. I conclude that the lack of real love, in Rechy's eyes, reduces his characters to the low level of brutes and savages whose behavior is described in animal terms to indicate its debased quality.)
The milieu of the homosexual is vicious and frightening. This "gay world," as Stanton Hoffman calls it, "functions as a metaphor for a destructive and despair ridden American reality." A perceptive reader, Hoffman sees the same kind of structure in the gay world that exists in the society as a whole, and therefore believes that Rechy reflects America in his underworld creations.
City of Night reflects, in exclamatory prose, a "grubby world" that is "gasping" and horrible, a world made up of malicious anthropomorphic cities filled with "allnight moviehouses" in whose balconies and back rows homosexuals gather "like dark vultures" searching for prey. The city of night is, of course, a metaphor, and an accurate one for what is being described, but Rechy is not meticulous in his descriptions of real cities. On page 26 he refers to New York City as "a Cage," and a mere thirteen pages later this "Cage" becomes an "islandcity" which is "like an electric, magnetic animal"—and fifty pages later it's a "jungle." Making a consistent image out of the tropes is impossible, but it is easy to perceive the feeling, which is unmistakably negative, as is most of the animal imagery. Here, for example, is a scene of sexual behavior: "Like a dog retrieving a stick and bringing it back to its master, with his teeth clutching the buckle, he slid the belt out of the pants straps—and he crouched on all fours brandishing the belt before me, dangling it from his mouth extended beggingly toward me."
This sounds enough like an excerpt from Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis so that I am certain no one of sound mind is likely to argue that it does not portray a human being in a degraded manner. Pathology, not love, is Rechy's province, and the anguished habitants of this pitiable domain at times hardly seem human. There is no substitute for salvation, Rechy says in all his writing, and love is our salvation; without it, we are brutes, not truly human, and doomed to painful failure with any surrogate.
City of Night was followed by Numbers, a dreary homosexual scorecard in which the protagonist, Johnny Rio, sets himself the goal of achieving thirty sexual "scores" within a period of ten days. (Rechy heroes, lacking love and fearfully craving it, like to feel desired, and the greater the number of people who desire them the more successful they feel in their substitution.) Griffith Park in Los Angeles is the setting for much of the activity—graphically described—but dark movie balconies are also used for fleeting and frantic trysts that are meaning-less except as "numbers" to add to the scorecard. It is significant that the movie house is used as a place of rendezvous, since it is the home of unreality, of illusion, of dreams projected in images larger than life—a place where the disappointed can meet in the dark and try to capture for a moment the illusion of love.
Johnny is a truly pathetic character, driven by a kind of franticness that is exacerbated by nerve-ripping panic and terror in his furtive encounters, and at the same time dulled by an enveloping ennui that is absolutely deadening. The best feeling he experiences is a sense of being alive, and he tries to use sex as a life stimulant. It fails: "And what does he feel? A screaming need still unfulfilled." There is no love in the book, and at the novel's end, the protagonist, lacking the human touch of warmth and caring, continues his futile but compulsive attempt to fill the void with numbers: the last line of the book is "Thirty-seven!"
In This Day's Death, the protagonist Jim Girard faces trial in Los Angeles Superior Court on a charge of homosexuality. As we might expect, the law is powerful, threatening, and anything but just, a symbolic distillation of the social structure that rejects Jim and forces him into the helpless role of victim. The recurrent image of tyranny is concentrated in the mechanical process of the law:
It was a hostile world, that world of criminal proceedings: Too often a defendant was reduced to a mere entity caught in opposing crosscurrents of court proceedings, as impersonal as a ball in a competitive game. What was won or lost had little to do with the instrument of the game. And as the ponderous abstract machinery of court proceedings moved inexorably, that machinery began to attain a definite threatening identity while a defendant felt his reduced, fading; finally—possibly—invisible?
Jim is from El Paso, but he goes back and forth to the city of lost angels and "lost defendant angels," where he sees the "same haunted, hunting, lost breed of faces he had been among on the insomniac streets of exile America." We are indeed in Rechy country, among the forlorn and afflicted who are both predator and prey, victim and victimizer in frenzied loveless encounters.
The only love Jim expresses is a kind of guilt-induced obligatory love for his mother, but even the mother-son relationship provides another form of trap, and his feelings are ambivalent and vacillatory. His mother is dying, her body wracked by unknown malevolent invaders of a nameless illness, "la cosa," an unseen terrible force from the pathogenic world that constitutes a different kind of "invisible trap" from the one Jim is caught in.
Again in this novel, sex is so identified with brutality, savagery, and wildness that Jim sees the sexual act as "symbolic slaughter," a manifestation of rage and anger, a way of ventilating his resentment through human violation—or of passing on to others the pain and suffering the world has heaped upon him.
The Vampires is an incredible novel, hastily written, about a group of bizarre people who gather on a Caribbean island to indulge in sadistic games that tear away the lies sustaining them. The island, being itself cut off, is an appropriate setting for these isolated people who suffer a kind of death in life. One of the characters is so numbed that he feels dead, and seeks pain just to feel alive. Another, a male prostitute plagued by impotence, previously enjoyed the desire others felt for him (while he felt contempt for them) because he wanted to feel loved—but the sex was never enough to overcome the feeling of emptiness. "Nothing was enough," he says, underscoring a thematic complaint.
What these people seek is deliverance, escape with a capital E. "It's not possible to Escape," one of them proclaims. "Life attacks. It comes roaring at you." And life, as Euripides said long ago, is a misery. Rechy's characters agree, for they are victims all, wretched, driven, tormented, lost. And in their misery they prey on each other, seemingly helpless to do otherwise but to pass on what they get from the world, oftentimes in the form of "sexual slaughter," which is a parody of love, a travesty of the only thing that could save them.
In The Fourth Angel, Rechy presents four El Paso adolescents who, in an attempt to find themselves, experiment with sex, alcohol, various drugs, and even people. Jerry, a fairly sensitive youth whose mother has recently died, joins a tough girl, Shell, and two boys, Cob and Manny, who call themselves the angels. Hoping to fill the void in his life, Jerry becomes the fourth angel and participates in the explorative escapades of the group. One of the things these juveniles like to do is catch people giving expression to their vices. They claim to want to "get into" other people's heads, but what they seem to enjoy is the vulnerability of those who are exposed—especially those whose sexual proclivities are exposed—and the concomitant superiority of their own position. For example, in an abandoned house by a bar, these "angels" catch two men engaged in sodomy and terrorize them. They try to force the couple to complete the act under their gaze, but the men are too frightened to perform and are released:
The two stumble past them.
"Like animals," Cob's words shoot out in accusation.
"Man, we really freaked them out," Manny says.
"Animals!" Cob yells after the two.
"Animals!" Shell seizes the word, laughing harshly. "Animals!"
"Animals!" Manny joins them.
"Animals …" Jerry echoes softly.
It is grindingly obvious that the youths are hurling an epithet, a disparaging label of shame and disgrace. That homosexual behavior is vastly more common to humans than to so-called lower animals is immaterial. The men, in giving vent to the sex drive without the favor of love, admit a connection with the animal world, confess that they share a need which is purely animalistic, and therefore, in the view of the gang members, they are base and low.
Later, these four "angels," under the influence of LSD, enter a supermarket and enrage a woman customer:
The woman turns fiercely from them, driving the cart like a tank. But in those moments, Jerry saw her mean face crumbling before him, folding over into a hideous, tortured rubber mask, melting. The curlers transformed into rolled horns pasted on her head, her pores opening ferociously, she had become a violent, irrational—yet strangely frightened—animal.
Whatever is ugly or irrational is usually presented in animal terms, despite the fact that irrational violence is far more characteristic of human beings than of animals.
Near the end of the novel, Cob and Shell fight for some kind of emotional supremacy, and Cob enlists Manny's aid in a sexual attack upon Shell as Jerry observes: "Swiftly, circling her like a cunning animal, Cob pulls her dress down. Naked in tatters, she looks savagely beautiful."
Savage and animal are terms Rechy uses to relate to sexual activity, of both heterosexual and homosexual variety. As we have seen, however, there is no evidence of real love displayed between any of the sexual partners, and the sex acts appear to be acts of lust that are distorted, warped, or perverted in terms of what is normally defined as acceptable behavior by community standards. Rechy writes of the reduced, "the tarnished fugitives of America," as he said in City of Night and his characters are loveless creatures who, driven by lust and frustration, seek any form of "love" they can find, however aberrant, however ersatz. But they are also symbols, and they function to demonstrate the disastrous result of the failure to love, and hence define the necessity of love. All Rechy's books are, in this sense, negative demonstrations of a very positive and moral appeal.
In the broadest sense, I believe Rechy makes a tacit plea that civilization be made the face of man (not just a mask), the human being be transformed into an honestly humane creature who would not need a mask, whose own face would be truly civilized, and whose world would not be wretched. Love is the alembic, the only hope, the only salvation. There is absolutely no substitute. If Rechy screams "Look!" and if he seems at times to be writing at the top of his voice, it is because his message is desperately important, and his audience is decidedly hard of hearing.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3247
SOURCE: "John Rechy, James Baldwin and the American Double Minority Literature," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 70-4.
[In the following excerpt, Nelson explores how Rechy's and James Baldwin's status as homosexuals and ethnic minorities has influenced their perspectives.]
John Rechy, in his interview with James Giles, compares himself to James Baldwin and states that they both possess a "dual consciousness" which accounts for a "special sensibility." Rechy's use of the term "dual sensibility" refers to his and Baldwin's status as double minorities in American society: Rechy is Chicano and homosexual, whereas Baldwin is black and homosexual. It is the "special sensibility" which stems from their psychosocial status as dual minorities in America which accounts for the utterly alienated and furiously rebellious vision of life embodied in their fiction. Hence in order to understand their works properly—especially the themes of alienation and rebellion—we need to consider the combined impact of these writers' ethnic awareness and homosexual consciousness that shape their imagination. To do so, however, we need to grasp the psychological and sociological implications of their condition as American artists-intellectuals who are also members of mistreated ethnic and sexual minority groups. For it is impossible, as Richard Barksdale argues, "to separate literature from mores and fiction from fact," and "writers write of what they think and dream, but what they think and dream comes out of the warp and woof of the life they live and see surging around them."
Although minority and homosexual literary traditions have received significant critical recognition and academic respectability in recent years, surprisingly little scholarly attention has been given to the impact of double minority status of writers like Rechy and Baldwin on their works. Critics who discuss Baldwin's works either emphasize his ethnicity or his homosexuality but seldom both. Discussions of American homosexual novels—Roger Austen's Playing the Game, for example—tend to treat Baldwin primarily as a homosexual artist but deal with his "blackness" cursorily. On the other hand, there are studies like Arthur Davis' From the Dark Tower that consider Baldwin as a leading black writer but de-emphasize his homosexuality. And sometimes his sexuality is even treated in insensitive or heterosexist manner: Robert Bone, for example, in The Negro Novel in America, refers to the homosexual content in Baldwin's fiction as "rather an evasion than an affirmation of human truth"; and Marcus Klein, in his After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century states that Baldwin's fiction provides glimpses of "tittering fairies and decrepit perverts." Conversely, Rechy is considered by many critics to be a prominent figure in the contemporary homosexual literary scene, but those critics (with an exception of two or three) seem to be either unaware of or ignore the fact that he is a Chicano. Stephen Adams, for example, in The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction, devotes sixteen pages to a discussion of Rechy's protagonists but fails to point out that Rechy himself—like many of his protagonists—is a Chicano from West Texas. One must acknowledge, however, that Rechy's fiction (with the exception of some minor unpublished works) contains no overt racial protest. His unwillingness to combine racial protest with homosexual revolt probably explains much of the critical silence on his ethnicity and its impact on his fiction.
But an understanding of the multiple forms of alienation Rechy and Baldwin experience as ethnic minorities and homosexuals is essential to a proper comprehension of their works. However, alienation is not unique to ethnic or sexual minorities alone; it is a transhistorical and cross-cultural phenomenon that affects everyone. Yet there are significant differences in the modes and intensity of alienation among individuals and groups, just as reasons for their estrangement can also vary. For example, even a cursory survey of contemporary sociological and psychological literature will indicate that there is a general consensus among scholars that the twentieth-century man is much more intensely alienated that those of the preceding generations. Social psychologists like Erich Fromm attribute the special alienation of the modern personality to the sweeping industrialization and massive urbanization and a host of other allied changes that have occurred during the present century.
Although alienation is a pervasive global syndrome, it seems to afflict the psyche of the modern American artist with special severity—for numerous historical and cultural reasons. One factor perhaps is that he is part of a culture which, unlike the Old World ones, is a discontinuous one that is essentially immigrant in origin and pluralistic and highly mobile in nature. It is also one of the most heavily industrialized and urbanized societies in the world; therefore the conditions that cause alienation tend to be more widespread and deep-rooted in it than in less industrialized and pre-industrial cultures of the world. Moreover, as an American artist-intellectual, he has to contend with the traditional American anti-intellectualism that seems to manifest itself occasionally in bizarre forms, such as the vigorous witch-hunt of writers during the Joseph McCarthy period. Richard Barksdale in his brilliant essay "Alienation and Anti-Hero in Recent American Fiction" enumerates three alienating conditions unique to the American artist: the painful gap between the glorious American Dream and the ugly historical record; the subordination of human values to the power and supremacy of technology; and the pervasive "Madison-avenuism" that prods America to "dress its wounds in sparkling cellophane and hide its evil with dollar bills." These, he argues, are the bases for the articulate American writer's "vigorous dissent."
But what about an articulate American artist who is also black? He experiences various forms of alienation that are common to all American artists; because of his race, however, the condition of isolation "impinges on the black American artist with special severity." Langston Hughes says that the black American artist has "all the problems that any other has, plus a few more." Arna Bontemps asserts that "though writers are traditionally at loggerheads with their society, they seldom escape its pressures, and this becomes doubly apparent in the case of Negro writers in America." His racial minority status adds certain forms of cultural and psychological alienation to his already alienated condition as an American artist-intellectual. His cultural isolation is not hard to understand because he is, after all, a product of the almost unending cultural and sociological nightmare of the Afro-American Experience. He is part of a group of people who were originally uprooted from their native soils and violently thrust into the alien environs of North America, where they have been subjected to systematic cultural (sometimes even physical) castration through the appalling crimes of slavery and, subsequently, various forms of statutory oppression. And since hostility toward them continues largely unabated even to this day, they still exist largely outside the American mainstream and power structure. As a member of such a minority group, the black writer feels a profound, perhaps irreversible, sense of cultural estrangement from the Establishment. This form of cultural isolation is further intensified by a brand of psychological estrangement experienced by nearly every black American. He lives in a culture which, by vigorously idealizing white values and standards while simultaneously debasing blacks through negative stereotypes and myths, significantly debilitates the black psyche and alienates the individual black from himself and his group. This is precisely the condition of alienation that Baldwin calls "the depthless alienation from oneself and one's people." Moreover, since racism in the United States is a pervasive ongoing phenomenon, alienation is not merely a philosophical concept for the black writer: it is a part of his everyday existence. And the black writer, because of his intellect and sensitivity, is likely to have a greater intellectual and emotional awareness of his condition of alienation than the average member of his ethnic group.
The plight of the Chicano writer is in many ways similar to that of the black artist. Chicanos too have a long history of discrimination; in fact, anti-Chicano prejudice even antedates anti-black feelings. And not many Americans are aware of the fact that Chicanos—not blacks—were the first group subjected to periodic lynchings. Moreover, like the enslavement of blacks, political subjugation of Chicanos through unprovoked attacks on the Spanish territories during the presidency of Polk was based largely on the concept of Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural superiority. As Gilberto Rivas—a Hispanic historian—points out, the American wars of aggression on Spanish territories were largely motivated by the Anglo-Saxon belief in the curious theory of Manifest Destiny, an imperialistic theory that justifies the territorial expansionism of Anglo-Saxons as their divinely appointed destiny, thus imputing providential sanction to their belief in their cultural and racial superiority. And Chicanos continue to suffer, in spite of their recent gains, various forms of ethnic, linguistic and economic discrimination. This ongoing mistreatment, coupled with a grim backdrop of historical injustices and humiliations, makes identification with the Establishment nearly a psychological impossibility for an overwhelming number of Chicano Americans. And as a member of this alienated group, the sensitive Chicano artist, who is likely to have a greater awareness than most others of the implications of being a Chicano in America, experiences certain forms of cultural and psychological alienation similar to that of the black artist.
While black and Chicano artists experience special alienation from self and society because of their ethnicity, the homosexual artist suffers yet other unique modes of alienation because of his affectional and sexual orientation. In many ways homosexual alienation can be even more debilitating than racial isolation. The American homosexual suffers an extraordinary sense of estrangement because of the intense homophobia endemic in the American society, homophobia that is institutionalized in the traditional family unit, the church and the medical and legal establishments. For example, a homosexual's own family can be a frightening source of alienation for him. While racial minorities can often feel a sense of solidarity with and draw strength from their families which equip them to combat external oppression, the homosexual is often an outsider within the confines of his own parental home. Another source of blatant homophobia is the church. In fact, traditional Christianity, which is primarily a male-oriented, sex-negative religion that emphasizes essentially the procreative aspects of human sexuality, continues to be a major factor in "shaping, supporting, and transmitting negative attitudes toward homosexuality."
The anti-homosexual orientation of Judeo-Christian tradition has also contributed to the religious alienation of many homosexuals by rendering their reconciliation of their sexuality with conventional religious faith nearly impossible. And the American legal system, built largely on the ethical and moral assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, attempts to regulate individual sexual behavior by sternly regarding homosexual acts as a crime against nature. This statutory oppression, by rendering homosexual men and women sexual outlaws, further intensifies their sense of estrangement from the Establishment culture. The medical establishment, despite its recent, largely cosmetic alterations in its stance on homosexuality, still remains yet another bastion of homophobia. Thus, society views the homosexual as a bizarre anomaly because he seems to disvalue the cultural criteria for masculinity (e.g., aggressive sexual pursuit of women, marriage, family), and considers his sexual behavior antithetical to all socialized belief systems; his family frequently reacts to him with antagonism; the church considers him tainted; the legal system outlaws him; and in the canons of psychiatry, he is a pathologically disturbed individual. The collective impact of these hostile attitudes—familial, social, legal, ecclesiastical, and medical—is bound to generate in the individual homosexual psyche a profound sense of alienation. And the homosexual who is also an artist is likely to experience greater than average intellectual and emotional awareness of his condition of appalling severance from the Establishment.
If racial minorities and homosexuals in the American society experience unique modes of alienation, what about an artist who is both a member of a minority group and a homosexual as well? This question brings me to my central concern in this paper: the combined impact of an artist's dual minority condition on his works. He is not only vulnerable to all forms of alienation that are peculiar to ethnic minorities and homosexuals, but his double minority condition substantially complicates his predicament by adding new dimensions to his feelings of alienation.
For example, the minority homosexual becomes an anomaly within his own ethnic group. It does indeed appear that certain racial groups—especially blacks and Chicanos—tend to be especially homophobic. Robert Staples, himself a black, suggests that since the masculinity of black males has been historically challenged and denigrated by white males, and since a vast majority of black males still experience an overwhelming sense of economic, social, and political powerlessness, perhaps they tend to be somewhat sensitive about their heterosexual-masculine self-image. Such sensitivity can cause special hostility toward homosexuals, especially black homosexuals. Also, since society in general equates homosexuality with effeminacy and weakness, perhaps a majority of blacks tend to view homosexuality as being fundamentally incompatible with the assertive and militant ideology of modern black consciousness. Amusingly enough, militant black activists like Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones have actually hinted that homosexuality is a white man's disease. One also has to wonder whether heterosexism among blacks is not really a form of emotional fortification that has psychotherapeutic value: after all, if blacks have "faggots" to look down on, then they themselves may not feel that they are at the lowest rung of society. Similarly, Chicano culture too seems to view homosexuality with special hostility. Hispanic culture in general sharply dichotomizes gender roles of males and females; it also places a very high value on machismo, or hypermasculinity, deemed ideal for a male. Since homosexuals neither fit into the neat dichotomous categorization of sex roles nor meet culturally defined standards of hypermasculinity, they become obvious anomalies in the Chicano culture, and not infrequently they are singled out for special ridicule, ostracism, and abuse.
While the sexual orientation of a minority homosexual generally makes him a pariah within his own community, his ethnicity often alienates him from the gay subculture, which is largely made up of whites. A majority of white homosexuals, in spite of their liberal protestations and outrage against heterosexual insensitivity, are often just as callously racist as most white heterosexuals. John Soares, a black gay activist, states that "to those who have moved in both straight and gay circles, it does indeed appear that for every racially colored posture found in straight society, there is a corresponding one in the gay society." Agreeing with this assessment, Thomas Dutton, also a black gay activist, adds that
Each time you enter a bar, go to a party, attend a group meeting, read gay press, or deal with white faggots on a social level, it [racism] is there. It is, outside of us, like a large beast looming omnipresent in front of us. Internally, like a crab with serrating pincers, it gnaws at us.
The predicament of the minority homosexual artist, hence, is one of complete alienation. In addition to all forms of estrangement common to twentieth-century man in general and the American artist in particular, he is also severely alienated because of his ethnicity and sexuality. For example, a black homosexual has to deal with the multiple jeopardy of being black in a racist society, a homosexual in a homophobic society, a black in a largely racist, white-oriented gay subculture, and a homosexual in an especially homophobic black community. The collective impact of these multiple forms of alienation is bound to be tremendous. And in order to understand properly the works of dual minority writers, like Rechy and Baldwin we need to be aware of the impact of their staggering alienation (and the rage it generates) on their works.
It is this double minority alienation that is largely responsible for the exilic sensibility that pervades the fictional worlds of Rechy and Baldwin. Perhaps it is this exilic sensibility that Rechy refers to as the "special sensibility" in his interview with James Giles. This sensibility—which stems from their condition of being rejected and denigrated exiles in their own homeland—mostly accounts for their nearly obsessive preoccupation with the theme of alienation. Their sense of exile manifests itself on many levels. Their characters not infrequently experience moments of psychological alienation—feelings of estrangement from their own selves. Often they are isolated from their families, especially their fathers or father-figures. They also frequently experience an overwhelming sense of religious alienation. And at least their homosexual characters are sometimes literal territorial exiles as well: the unnamed narrator of Rechy's City of Night, for example, wanders through the American homosexual underworld with an acute sense of homelessness; and many of Baldwin's characters—like David in Giovanni's Room, Eric in Another Country, and Arthur in Just Above My Head—leave the country of their birth and become exiles in Europe.
Closely related to the theme of alienation is the theme of rebellion. The protagonists of Rechy and Baldwin are often defiant and rebellious. They rebel against their families and often define themselves in opposition to their fathers. Their homosexual progatonists, because they operate outside the legal and moral boundaries of society and wander into the forbidden territories of human sexual experience, are also social rebels; they defy society with their sexuality—that very part of them that is used by society to stigmatize them. More obvious than their familial and social revolt is their religious rebellion. Like the Camusian metaphysical rebels, they defy God as a "supreme outrage."
The exilic sensibility of Rechy and Baldwin not only manifests itself in their thematic concerns but in their imagistic preoccupation as well. The image of exile is evoked over and over again in their works, and sometimes, as in City of Night, the metaphor of exile functions as a structural device as well. The anxieties of alienation are also often conveyed by both writers through images of confinement: for example, images of trap, cage, and circle. Some of their novels, especially those which deal primarily with homosexual themes, like City of Night, Numbers, Giovanni's Room, and Another Country are also replete with military images, (e.g., "fugitives," "surrender," "tattered army," defeated army," "warrior," "victory," and "maneuvers.") This military terminology reflects the characters'—and perhaps also the authors'—sense of being embattled, of being psychologically at war with the environment. Yet another imagistic device that both Rechy and Baldwin use extensively is what Honora Lynch calls "urban pathetic reflection." For example, the palm trees are "apathetic;" the streets of Chicago are "wounded;" the weight of New York City is "murderous;" and skyscrapers seem to be "pressing down" on people. This device, used almost painstakingly by both Rechy and Baldwin, helps convey the characters'—and perhaps their own—terrible sense of alienation from nature and their perception of their environment as essentially hostile.
Thus the double minority alienation and anger of Rechy and Baldwin seem to account for their nearly obsessive treatment of the themes of personal, familial, social, and cosmic alienation and rebellion, and even for their preoccupation with certain patterns of imagery. And viewing their works in terms of their ethnic-homosexual sensibilities can not only help us understand them more thoroughly, but such an approach can also help us understand better the works of other minority gay writers like Allen Ginsberg (who is Jewish and gay), black women writers (who also face the dual trauma of racism and sexism), and even white lesbian writers (who experience both sexism and heterosexism). Perhaps it can also help us understand more clearly the whole area of American ethnic gay literature, an area that still remains insufficiently explored.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6934
SOURCE: "The Ambiguous Outlaw: John Rechy and Complicitous Homotextuality," in Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 204-25.
[In the following essay, Perez-Torres concentrates primarily on The Sexual Outlaw, considering the role of the homosexual hustler in Rechy's work.]
The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary represents John Rechy's most overtly political novel. Although this is not a terribly interesting fact in and of itself, the text (first published in 1977) does represent for gay liberation an early and aggressive assertion of the lessons learned from the women's movement: the personal is political. Asserting this view, the book simultaneously complicates it by revealing the potentially contradictory politics of personal liberation.
The novel concerns itself with the actions of a socially marginal but sexually liberated figure as he moves through the decaying urban landscape of our postindustrial age. The protagonist—a semicomposite, semiautobiographical character named Jim—engages in a weakened "sex hunt" in and around the environs of a pre-AIDS Los Angeles sometime around the mid-1970s. Jim stands as a pastless and sexually tireless everyman who forms the moral and ethical center of the novel. He represents the image of male sexuality common to almost all of Rechy's other novels: the hustling homosexual whose actions not only address his own sexual desire, but represent a challenge to the rigid oppression of heterosexual society. Restlessly wandering the peripheries of society, the male hustler becomes for Rechy a sexual shock troop meant to disrupt and sabotage the heterosexual world. The male hustler forms a disruptive and liberating force against the repressive and rigid social order, against its narrowly defined heterosexual identity, against the social complacency and passivity that this identity engenders. His promiscuity challenges the unexamined pieties and platitudes of the repressive heterosocial world.
The Sexual Outlaw thus offers a topology of homosexual masculinity, one that ostensibly maps practices of liberation and self-empowerment for a new, postrepressive age. The narrative posits an image of the homosexual hustler as a matrix of social disruption, agent and agitator for a "minority" cause, model of sexual animal cum revolutionary hero.
Rechy's representation of male identity as sexual outlaw emerges out of the contradictions rife within heterosocial order. The actions of the hustler—ostensibly liberating sexual practices comprised of public, anonymous sex antithetical to monogamy—position the outlaw in a tentative and limited relationship to the rest of society. The anonymity with which he performs his acts of sexual rebellion, the deserted urban terrain he claims as his own geography, serve to reinscribe the marginalization of the sexual outlaw. This marginalization is manifested most clearly by the silent codes which the hustler uses to communicate. Indeed, were it not for Rechy's text, the world it describes would remain a demimonde beyond the horizon of heterosocial vision.
More significantly, the novel reveals how the hustler can never fully reject society's repressions, contradictions, and hypocrisies. Beyond the reassertion of the homosexual as marginal, the sexual outlaw in Rechy's work embodies many of the contradictions and failures that characterize heterosociety. Conflicting modes of sociosexual organization—liberated revolutionary, entrapped sexual invert—come within the text to comprise the protagonist's identity. The homosexual hustler is constituted by the very repressive and delimiting social practices against which his own acts of erotic liberation battle. Homosexual and heterosexual practices meet in the outlaw to form an irresolvable tension. The tension becomes particularly tangible at those points where the narrative shows the hustler's sexual choreography to mirror the straight world's preoccupation with dominance and submission. Jim is compelled to power, selling his alluring body. Proving his worth by demanding money for sex, he places himself within both erotic and capital economies based in heterosocial order.
In textualizing the sexual outlaw, The Sexual Outlaw comes to embody numerous tensions that disrupt the semantic and semiotic order of the text. The novel valorizes a field of sexual play that seeks to trigger a form of revolt and liberation. The physical elements of this sexual play—symbolically charged clothing, actions, signals, looks—form the "silent" language of an erotic discourse that, textualized in Rechy's novel, seeks to overthrow the repressive discourses of identity imposed by heterosocial order. The "voicing" of a "silent" discourse marks one level of tension at work in The Sexual Outlaw. A second tension emerges at the discursive level where the homoerotic within Rechy's text, by inverting notions of heterosocial identity, unwittingly submits to them as well. Rechy's narrative seeks to construct a resistant discourse of homosexual liberation, to create, if you will, a heroic homotextuality. This homotextuality reveals the contradictions inherent both in the heterosocial world against which it speaks and in the homorevolutionary activity it champions. However, a fruitful analysis of this text cannot simply lay bare the novel's ideological enslavement to heterosocial order. While its homotextuality reinscribes elements of heterosocial order, the novel simultaneously disrupts narrative order by placing irresolvable contradictions in play. By evoking the binary structure that bolsters heterosocial order, The Sexual Outlaw not only inverts that binary structure but—by revealing its contradictions, contributes to its destruction.
I. The Split Narrative
The breakdown of binaries begins with the bifurcated structure of the novel. The Sexual Outlaw oscillates between neatly separated passages of realistic description and essayistic meditations. The descriptive passages offer in (porno) graphic detail an account of the novel's "outlaw" world. Their position as social outsider allows homosexual hustlers a critical perspective on the repressive and conformist practices of heterosocial order. Homosexuality, as defined by this order, is stigmatized, persecuted, labelled a "deviate practice." Against these negative constructions of homosexuality, the descriptive narrative represents the revolutionary function of the sexual outlaw.
The subtitle of the book, a documentary, underscores the function of the narrative as critical exposé. The work explores the sexual activities of a marginal group whose actions question and undermine heterosocial practices, practices that repressively define sexual identity in the service of social organization. Sexual outlaws disrupt and destroy the operations of the heterosocial world by questioning the monological bases of its order: monogamy, reproduction, duality, stability, closure. The incessant repetition of almost identical sexual encounters detailed by these descriptive passages suggests the potentially endless lack of closure inherent in the hustler's movement from one sexual partner to another.
These (porno) graphic passages alternate with meditative "essays" that form the other half of the novel's bifurcated structure. These essays range through time and place and incorporate many different narrative forms and diverse public discourses. Part interview, part public speech, part movie montage, part meditation on gay culture, part reminiscence, these sections are mediated through and unified by an authorial voice. This voice draws together the various heterosocial voices that comment on and react to homosexuality: newspaper clippings about police harassment of gays, reports by religious and psychiatric organizations on homosexuality as evidence of moral or psychic transgression, real and imaginary audience reaction to the narrator's speeches about the gay world. These sections articulate a number of social attitudes toward homosexuality. The social discourses, then, serve as a multivocalic commentary on the outlaw's liberating practice of endless desire described in the erotic section. Rechy notes in the introduction that he, indeed, wrote the descriptive passages first, later inserting the essays at points he had marked in the manuscript. The descriptive sections serve as the erotic "center" that the "marginal" meditative passages and their evocation of social discourses critique and amplify.
One process of inversion emerges as the novel reverses sociocultural reality. Homotextuality—the discourse of homosexual liberation—is inscribed as the center of the narrative structure. The historical "center"—heterosocial order evoked by the meditative sections—becomes the novelistic "margin" whereas the homosexual Other forms the narrative core of The Sexual Outlaw. Thus two asymmetrical regions come to define the novel: a unitary, closed, "silent" homosexual discourse sliced through by a multiplicitous, open, "voiced" social discourse.
M. M. Bakhtin's (1981) formalist model of novelistic discourse is illustrative here. He argues that a "unitary language" (monoglossia) is a system of linguistic norms that struggles to overcome the multiplicity of meaning (heteroglossia) linguistic utterances evoke. This monoglossic system is "conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a world view, even as a concrete opinion, insuring a maximum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life." The erotic passages in Rechy's narrative are written both as a documentary description of a particular sexual world and as an "ideologically saturated" world view that informs the novel's polemic. The meditative passages, by contrast, incorporate voices questioning both the revolutionary potential of the sexual outlaw as well as the society seeking to persecute him.
The unitary erotic relies on the multiplicitous heterosocial in order to find a "public" voice. Without the meditative and reflective social narrative, the erotic discourse of the male hustler would remain enclosed within a descriptive but isolated narrative. One unfamiliar with the critical and rebellious intent of the sexual outlaw—indeed, one would suspect, the majority of Rechy's reading audience—would remain wholly "outside" the narrative able to perceive only repetitive and (porno) graphic descriptions of homosexual intercourse. The rebellious note would remain unheard by those uninitiated in the hustlers' "silent" language—the elaborate choreography of clothes and signals and movements carefully detailed in the descriptive passages. The presence of the social narrative within the novel as commentary on and explanation of the erotic narrative positions both the homorevolutionary and the heterosocial arenas in a mutually reliant discursive relationship.
The narrative structure thus evokes the compromised position of the sexual outlaw as standing both within and without various social orders. The narrator, by contrast, wants to position the hustler fully outside the systems of heterosocial control. His is a tenuous, doubly marginalized position: "Existing on the fringes of the gay world, male hustlers have always been dual outsiders, outlaws from the main society, and outcasts within the main gay world of hostile non-payers and non-sellers. Desired abundantly, and envied, they are nonetheless the least cared about." This position of double marginality affords the narrative of The Sexual Outlaw a unique and powerful critical position. In order for this position of power to be made manifest, however, the silent and hidden erotic discourse must be made public through the multivocalic narrative. Hence, whereas a strict structural separation exists between the public voices of the essays and the erotic discourse of the descriptive passages, each simultaneously reflects upon and filters the contents of the other through its own lens. The revolutionary and the repressive within The Sexual Outlaw become not merely inversions, negative evocations of the other. They are fully reliant and dynamic players in the homotextuality of the novel, the articulation of a male homosexual revolutionary identity.
The sense of slippage exemplified by a homorevolutionary identity attempting to stand fully outside a heterosocial order comes to the fore as the narrative emphasizes its use of realist techniques. The erotic passages evoke a literary realism, an attempt to represent a specific reality as it is lived. Rechy notes in his 1984 preface to the book that he conceived of his work as a "prose documentary." The attempt at cinema verité is evident in the stark ("black-and-white" Rechy calls it) imagery used to describe the sex-hunt undertaken by Jim. Rechy explains that in these sections he "wanted to create characters, including the protagonist, who might be defined 'fully'—by inference—only through their sexual journeys." These sections of the novel describe a movement through a sexual "underworld" marked by its repetitious cycle of desire, pursuit, contact, fulfillment, and renewed desire.
The episodic quality of these descriptions stands for narrative development. "Although there is a protagonist whom the book follows intimately, minute by recorded minute for a full weekend, there is no strict plot," remarks Rechy. A rigidly structured sequence of erotic description replaces a sense of narrative development based upon the dynamic growth and change of the protagonist. With the exception of a few flashbacks (passages unambiguously marked "FLASHBACK" in the text), the sex scenes in the novel form a strictly chronological sequence. The passage of time marked rigorously throughout these portions of the narrative inform the reader if a particular action occurs at 6:22 P.M. or 3:07 A.M. Time becomes the principal mode of organization and lends a controlling structure to the otherwise repetitive present-tense descriptions of sodomy, fellatio, and mutual masturbation. As one scene follows another, the narrative enforces a strict temporal order. It does not, however, truly evoke a realist narrative.
The sexual descriptions, realistic as they may seem, do not move simply toward documentary expression. They form a discourse marked by unresolved desires, allowing the reader to trace strata of contradictions and conflicts. Rechy's narrative as an account in the late 1970s of a post-sexual revolution, post-gay liberation, postmodern, post-1960s social world helps locate the complexities involved in social change and political revolution. One formal constellation of this complexity—and the point at which the realist aesthetic of the novel slips into a hyperrealism—develops at the level of character psychology.
As Rechy explains in his introduction, the characters that people Jim's rebellious sexual journey are fully defined by that journey. The bourgeois individual disappears, and the male hustler stands as a figure fully traversed by social discourses—the historical, social, and moral strictures used by heterosocial order to define the individual and against which the hustler stands. While he revels in the sexual urgency of his actions, the identity of the hustler is based on the delimiting social and historical orders he resists. His is a libidinal utopia found at the margins but also, dialectically, composed of the central discursive trajectories of society's order. He stands at a point where not just the sense of the inside and the outside of individual identity blur, but where the limits of political and sexual constituencies disappear. The hustler within an ostensibly realist narrative becomes a figure fully comprised of language. The novel thus does not sustain the illusion of a realistic discourse. Fully defined by his sexual journey, the hustler represents not a rounded individual but a hyperreal figure where the contradictions of the social world come to the fore.
The gay cruising world becomes a mirror of heterosexual norms. Jim hustles for money by playing the ultra-masculine street-tough: "He's wearing Levi's and cowboy boots, no shirt. Sunglasses." Making sexual connections for money, "he will most often pretend to be 'straight'—uncomfortably rationalizing the subterfuge by reminding himself that those attracted to him will usually—though certainly not always—want him to be that, like the others of his breed." As top man, Jim assumes the role of the quintessential heterosexual male, appropriating the image and exaggerating it as if in a funhouse mirror. Often bodybuilders (like the narrator, the author, and the fictional Jim) and male hustlers assume both the physique and the costume—Levi's, boots, sleeveless shirts—of macho masculinity. The hustler appropriates and reflects back to masculine society a version of its own (ideal) sexual self-image.
The ultra-feminine transvestites and transsexuals represent the binary opposite to the ultra-masculine male-hustlers: "At Highland and Hollywood, the queens, awesome, defiant Amazons, are assuming their stations. The white queens are bleached and pale, the black ones shiny and purple. Extravagant in short skirts, bouffant hairdos, luminous unreal mouths and eyes. The transsexuals are haughty in their new credentials." Both the queens and the hustlers assume exaggerated versions of the sexual roles circumscribed by heterosocial order. The contradictions of the gay street world are magnifications of the contradictions running through this order. A problem with the straight world, the narrative argues, is that it denies a dialectic between the masculine and feminine principles of human identity. This denial forms one basis for the split in the outlaw world Rechy's novel serves to describe.
The meditative sections of the novel criticize writers who ceaselessly flaunt their masculinity, calling them "screaming heterosexuals" and "male impersonators." The narrative seeks to redress and subvert the sense of machismo and homophobia found in the works of Ernest Hemingway, the "hairy godfather of heterosexual writers," and the sexual anxiety and violence invoked by the "Tarzan-howling" Norman Mailer. The narrator suggests that the writers who have created the most fulfilling work—Shakespeare, Joyce, Lawrence, Proust, Genet, Burroughs—are those artists who most fully accept and integrate the "female grace" and the "male strength" of their psyches. Which is to say that the narrator values those writers who seem to challenge most successfully the binary construction of "feminine" and "masculine."
One would be terribly hard pressed, however, to find some "female grace" evident in either the graphic descriptions of the erotic narrative or the outraged authorial voice of the social narrative. Instead, the novel celebrates the power the hustler exerts over his small domain: "There is a terrific, terrible excitement in getting paid by another man for sex. A great psychological release, a feeling that this is where real sexual power lies—not only to be desired by one's own sex but to be paid for being desired, and if one chooses that strict role, not to reciprocate in those encounters, a feeling of emotional detachment as freedom—these are some of the lures…." The narrative valorizes an image of traditional heterosexual masculinity and attitudes toward sex that involve control, detachment, freedom.
This power, ironically, often leads Jim into a position of impotence. Though excited, he will not reciprocate a sexual act unless his partner is extremely handsome. Neither will he ever initiate a sexual act: "Two beautiful male bodies lie side by side naked…. Used to being pursued, each waits for the other to advance first…. Looking away from each other, both dress hurriedly, each cut deeply by regret they did not connect"; "Jim wants the man to blow him first, and the man wants Jim to do it first. They separate quickly." Jim's quest for power traps him in impotence, just as his domination over sexual partners leads him to a reliance upon another partner in order to affirm his power. He must be pursued as an object of desire. Repeatedly, the narrative makes evident the conflicted position of the sexual outlaw who, attempting to escape the repression and boundaries of the heterosocial world, runs again and again straight into its contradictions.
Although the narrative attempts to position the male hustler as a doubly marginal figure, it reveals him to stand both within and without heterosocial systems. His inversion of heterosexual roles is at once subversive and critical as well as imitative and conformist. The revolutionary intent of both the novel and its protagonist becomes defused as the hustler is shown to assume a reactive and thus dependent position to the center.
The interplay between silence and voice underscores this sense of dependence. The language of the hustling world—"spoken" through posture, costume, and look—represents a form of "silent" language. After his early encounters by the pier, on the beach, in the restroom, Jim realizes he has "spoken not a word to anyone today. Not one." Most of the communication described in the narrative occurs through the use of gesture ("from behind blue-tinted sunglasses, he surveys those gathered here, intercepts looks—but he moves along the sand toward the ocean"), through sexual position ("swiftly turning his body around, torso bending forward, back to Jim, the naked young man parts his own buttocks"), or through clothing ("men lie singly in that parabola of sand—the more committed in brief bikinis, or almost naked—genitals sheltered only by bunched trunks"). The silence, along with its suggestion of near religious commitment and sacrifice—a vow of silence—stands in contradistinction to the form the novel assumes as a publicly "voiced" disclosure of the "silent" homorevolutionary world.
The silence essential to Rechy's homosexual discourse stands in contrast to and is only made manifest by the public voices of the socially discursive sections. Which is to say, the (silent) homosexual discourse only exists in Rechy's narrative when made present by the (voiced) public language of various other discourses—a novelistic discourse, a documentary discourse, a journalistic discourse, a media discourse. The form the novel takes betrays its vision of homosexuality as a singular and impenetrable margin. The bifurcated narrative articulates a homosexual/political practice dependent upon the very social strictures against and apart from which the novel's sense of a (true) homorevolutionary identity seeks to exist.
II. Marginal Masculine Identity
The Sexual Outlaw does not just represent a story of failed rebellion. Rather, the text betrays an incessant doubling whereby the discourses of liberation and repression are ever revealing the duplicity of the other. In his studied macho posturing, in his overt strategizing for domination and power, Jim plays out a heightened image of male heterosocial dominance. Simultaneously, the narrative finds in the male hustling arena a passive-aggressive role traditionally ascribed to women within male-dominated society. Working-out incessantly in order to be desirable, passively attracting the attention of others, Jim stands as the physical manifestation of idealized manliness. He behaves, however, by a code associated with a most prim and passive form of female behavior. He must always be the object of the chase. He must never initiate contact with another man. He must always allow the other to call his attention first: "Jim sees an obvious bodybuilder. The attraction and the competition are instantly stirred. Jim is prepared to ignore the other. But the other pauses. Jim looks back. With a nod, the other invites Jim into his cubicle." Jim positions himself as the center of attention, an object of worship, the focus of desire.
Pushed by the pressures of heterosocial order to remain marginal, the hustlers lay claim to abandoned public spaces as their geosexual terrain. The discourses of the heterosocial mark this rebellious claim to geographical space as much as it marks the construction of the homorevolutionary self. The sexual outlaw plays within a field bounded by the unmerciful laws behind a form of social darwinism. The struggle to survive in the heterosocial arena is carried over into the homoerotic realm of supposed liberation. Those who are old or ugly do not survive in the game of the sex hunt: "In the shadows an unattractive man is jerking off; everyone walks by, ignoring him"; "an unattractive loose-fleshed old man lies there naked, his hand on his spent groin. Abandoned and desperate and alone—one of the many lingering, ubiquitous, wasted, judging ghosts in the gay world. Jim avoids him"; "beyond the cave of the tunnel he passes a forlom old man, waiting, alone, ignored, wasted; waiting for anybody." These lonely images stand at the fringe of the outlaw arena, denied the right to play the hunt due to their advanced age and degenerating physical appearance. The irony of Rechy's use of the term "gay world" becomes uncomfortably apparent.
The narrative thus explores the problems engendered by a practice of complicitous rebellion, one simultaneously revolutionary and restrictive. The narrative voice speaks of a sexual revolution embodied by the spirit and actions of the sexual outlaws:
What kind of revolution is it that ends when one looks old, at least for most? What kind of revolution is it in which some of the revolutionaries must look beautiful? What kind of revolution is it in which the revolutionaries slaughter each other, in the sexual arenas and in the ritual of S & M?
We're fighting on two fronts—one on the streets, the other inside.
The "outside" street fight of the sexual guerrillas, amid the broken buildings of the urban wasteland and the open terrain of beach and park, stands at the point where the repressive propriety of heterosocial order proves impotent. The hustling choreography continues despite repeated repressive measures taken by the police and other state authorities. The "inside" fight, the moral imperative to overcome personal prejudice and self-hatred, occurs within a discussion of homosexual identity. The narrative suggests that an idealized vision of youth and beauty informs and infuses notions of identity and desirability. Other outlaws reject individuals unfortunate enough to be old or unappealing, and this in turn can lead to a terrible self-hatred:
Jim faces a drunkenly swaying youngman. Not particularly attractive, the type he would not reciprocate with. Depression crowds the youngman's thin face. Jim doesn't recognize him even vaguely…. "You make yourself available," the drunken voice goes on tearing at the silence of the paused choreography. The shadows do not move, the spell locked. "You walk around showing off your body. You didn't even touch me, just wanted me to lick your body. Well, I have a body too!"
The confrontation violates the hustler choreography, disturbs the "stirless dark silence," and assaults the "rigid silence" of the hunt. The moment allows the text to examine the cost of the hustler's identity: "In an unwelcome moment the ugly carnage of the sex-hunt gapes at Jim—his part in it." The sex hunt exacts a demanding toll, and the narrative suggests that the erotic discourse of liberation to which the sexual outlaw lays claim carries with it a repressive charge as well. The contradictions of his simultaneously revolutionary and repressive intent inextricably bind the identity of the sex hunter and the resistant intent of the novel. The Sexual Outlaw functions as a complicitous critique. It examines the repressive function of heterosocial order and signals the inextricable connection between that order and the homorevolutionary outlaw. In addition, it scrutinizes those repressive practices that to some degree are independent of heterosocial order. The emancipatory outlaw function described by the narrative—the homotextuality—reveals the homosexual hustler occupying a complex marginal space, one simultaneously reliant upon and resistant to central discourses of sexual identity, one implicated in a dual movement of liberation and self-repression.
Rechy's novel thus raises the specter of a complicated and compromised resistant identity. The narrative's bifurcated structure and construction of interpenetrating heterosexual and homosexual social practices mark the contradictions the text finds inscribed in the protagonist's identity. Moreover, the text suggests that repressive practices in the gay world are at moments more than manifestations of a contradictory heterosocial order. The novel thus allows one to move away from the scrutiny of textual form and individual identity toward the exploration of a complex and resistant group identity marked by a sense of conflict and capitulation, resistance and repression.
The sections of social commentary throughout the text—the "public" half of the split narrative—indicate that North American gays in the late 1970s have come to assume a "minority" consciousness. Group identity, predicated upon notions of solidarity as a stand against the oppressive attitude of the majority society, can bolster self-esteem and self-identity while simultaneously silencing critical voices. As the narrator notes: "For a gay person to criticize any aspect of the gay world is to expose himself to howls of wrath and betrayal." Yet a process of critique, of a "deterritorialization" of social order, characterizes Rechy's vision of an outlaw world. The narrative thus offers insight into what one critical construction of a marginal masculine identity may look like.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss deterritorialization and reterritorialization as connected processes of group consciousness. To "territorialize" is to stratify, organize, signify, attribute—to fix identity. Against this, "deterritorializations" signify those points that traverse a fixed identity. This can only be met with a move toward reterritorialization, the configuration of a new order. The critical work of these French critics suggests an endless interrelation between liberating and oppressive movements. Even if identity is questioned and social stratification dissolved, "there is still a danger that you will re-encounter organizations that restratify everything, formations that restore power to a signifier, attributions that reconstitute a subject." The Sexual Outlaw thus serves to document how the deterritorializing activity of public homosexuality ruptures society's territorializations of sexual identity, of criminality, of sin. Even within this experience of rupture, however, movements toward new stratifications emerge: the opposition of homosexuality to racial and ethnic identity, the primary valuation of beauty and youth, the retreat into the closet from which a safe and pragmatic homosexuality can be practiced.
The revolutionary impulse of the sexual outlaw leads toward a "reterritorialization" of identity: stratified, ossified, segmented. Rechy's work explores the tension between the revolutionary impulse of its male subject and the internal and external forces that seek to contain any sense of rupture. The erotic sections are episodic and repetitious, presented as "lines of flight" away from the strictures of correctness articulated by the social discourse of the novel. Simultaneously, an irreducible tension emerges between the sense of flight and liberation suggested by the erotic discourse and the isolation and stratification its form implies: only sexuality informs these erotic sections and every other object—food and clothes and all physical movement—becomes subordinated to its drive.
The erotic discourse deterritorializes the well-defined moral and legal segments invoked in the social discourses of the novel. This discourse also reterritorializes the significance of eroticism—sexual outlawry is and must always be disruptive. The narrative offers no image of the "perverse" in the sense Barthes (1985) speaks of perversion as "the search for a pleasure that is not made profitable by a social end, a benefit to the species…. It's on the order of bliss that exerts itself for nothing. The theme of expenditure." Jim's eroticism is all-consuming, charging his clothes, food, and gesture with an eroticism itself equivalent with social rupture—a revolutionary and liberating benefit "to the species." Rechy's text thus foregrounds the theme of (capital) exchange rather than (perverse) expenditure.
The erotic discourse, in consuming and so assigning significance, silences all that is not of use to the aleatory movement of sexual outlawry. Thus Jim's ethnic background becomes subordinated to his homosexual identity:
Jim—he calls himself that sometimes, sometimes Jerry, sometimes John—removes the bikini, lies boldly naked on the sand. Because of a mixture of Anglo and Latin bloods, his skin quickly converts the sun's rays into a tan; the tan turns his eyes bluer; long-lashed eyes which almost compromise the rugged good looks of his face, framed by dark hair. The sun licks the sweat from his body.
The erotic narrative subordinates any sense of ethnic or racial identity to the erotic, the physical, the homosexual. Rechy, a Chicano, writes a narrative that makes hidden any connection to a nonsexual self. Indeed, the long lashes of his eyes "almost compromise" the protagonist's good looks. As constructed by the narrative, the racial self even threatens the sexual self. In addition, the protagonist's own name—sometimes Jim, sometimes Jerry, sometimes John—has no significatory power against the segmented and wholly consuming identity of homosexual hunter.
Yet, for all this, the narrative evokes various strata of homosexual identity. Homosexual groups in the narrative function as sects with their own secret rites and rituals. In this vein, homosexuality is still tied to "the values and systems of interaction of the dominant sexuality. Its dependence upon heterosexual norms can be seen in its policy of secrecy, of concealment—due partly to the repression and partly to the sense of shame which still prevails in the 'respectable' circles." The landscape Jim traverses in his journey is dotted with the glitter bars, the leather bars, the costume bars representing enclosed domains of concealed rituals of contact. Jim himself usually remains at the periphery of these bars, moving through the alleyways or parking lots outside. He attempts to be truly marginal, an outlaw/existentialist/romantic hero walking on the fringe of the already socially marginal. When Jim does enter these bars, he feels himself surrounded by churning bodies and bare torsos, a charade of ramrod poses that cause him to leave for the ostensibly liberating streets, beach fronts, and hiking trails—the open and more dangerous world of an indifferent rural/urban landscape.
The social narrative examines a group who contest the grip of heterosocial power on their lives. They represent a militant homosexuality that demands its right to exist as a valid sexual, social, and moral entity. As a result, a sense of group identification begins to emerge through the text. The narrator speaks about the Hollywood Gay Parade: "There was plenty of dignity, and, embarrassing to admit—man—I felt the itchy sentiment that signals real pride. Here you are, and here they are, and here we are. I remember Ma Joad's proud speech of the Okies' eventual triumph in 'defeat.' We keep coming, she said, because we're the people." This passage reveals the easy sentimentality and reliance upon cliché "hip" diction that often plague Rechy's writing. This passage compounds these problems by referring to the sentimental movie version of Steinbeck's already sentimental "proletarian" novel The Grapes of Wrath. Nevertheless, the passage reveals a strain of resistance manifesting itself as minority group identity. The homosexual forms a margin of opposition challenging the authority of heterosexual power. A movement away from gays having to explain themselves to the heterosexual world propels such resistance and becomes, according to Guattari, "a matter of heterosexuality's having to explain itself; the problem is displaced, the phallocratic power in general comes into question." A resistant homosexual identity inverts a traditional relationship to heterosocial power. It ceases to explain its own existence and instead questions and critiques the centrality of the other's position.
Rechy's narrative, however, does not fully achieve the critical (and some might say facile) point of inversion Guattari's analysis champions. The Sexual Outlaw explores a homosexuality that is both reliant upon and resistant to the values and systems of the dominant society. It engages with a notion of the marginal quite distinct from the sense of pure otherness posited by Guattari. The narrative suggests that a reliance upon heterosocial norms leads to a false and destructive sense of identity while also indicating that a powerful belief in the fully resistant and militant quality of homosexual revolt can lead to a code that reterritorializes identity:
Increasingly easy on campuses and within other enclosed groups to announce openly that one is gay. The shock is gone…. It is equally easy to say "gayisbeautiful—gayisproud." Almost one word, meaning obscured. But are homosexuals discovering their particular and varied beauty? From that of the transvestite to that of the bodybuilder? The young to the old? The effeminate to the masculine? The athletic to the intellectual? Gay must be allowed variations. It is gay fascism to decree that one must perform this sex act, and must allow that one, in order to be gay; it is gay fascism to deny genuine bisexuality, or to suspect all heterosexuals.
The narrative calls for (but does not necessarily privilege) a genuine multiplicity of identity and sexuality. It thus explores the complicated and compromised position of a resistant homosexual minority, yet it leaves intact the sense of irresolvable contradiction it finds there. Ultimately, Rechy's text is useful less as a meditation on what homosexual "being" means than as an anticipation of how homosexual "becoming" can move beyond the binaries of heterosocial order. Heterosocial order defines masculinity through a manifestation of physical and social strength. Physical prowess and politico-economic power are the marks of heterosexual machismo. In his outward appearance, the homosexual can represent an exaggerated image of male heterosocial power. Bulging muscles, cowboy boots, leather jackets, worn blue jeans as cultural icons evoke images of masculine heterosexual power. The male hustler assumes the physical role traditionally assigned to that faction most empowered by society and that most insists upon separating itself from homosexual behavior: the macho heterosexual male. One manifestation of becoming queer involves the ironic appropriation of those signs belonging to the powerful, turning those signs "queer" and resisting their circulation within heterosocial systems of exchange. This appropriation does not imply the simple inversion of signifying systems, however. As Rechy's text all too clearly reveals, inversion only recreates a mirror image of asymmetrical power relations.
The Sexual Outlaw signals the inevitable repression when becoming queer is fixed (reterritorialized) as a form of homosexual being. The narrative problematizes the process of discursive appropriation as the protagonist assumes modes of being that fix trajectories of empowerment and disempowerment. In order to attain a degree of agency and control, Jim feels he must affirm his subjectivity by always being a passive object of desire as an assertion of his masculine allure. He moves through a point where, incorporating contradictory heterosocial sexual roles, those passive modes of behavior socially sanctioned for women cross with the dominant modes of behavior appropriate for men. Jim's identity incorporates the binaries of socially sanctified sexual identity, reveals their contradictions, but does not move beyond them. Homosexual being in the narrative is fixed, stuck, unable to reach out beyond the series of irreducible conflicts Jim employs to define himself. Bound by a code circumscribed by heterosocial norms, the homosexual in The Sexual Outlaw becomes a critical locus at which the contradictory trajectories of his dominant society converge. The novel thus posits a rebellious hero but offers us something less. In so doing, it presents an image of a compromised critique that the narrative seeks all to easily to resolve.
The narrative expresses an impossible desire for resolution and transcendence that only serves to re-entrench the contradictory position of the hustling outlaw. As the narrator explains, the "warring attempts to fuse heterosexual expectations with homosexual needs and realities create the contradictions in the gay world." The homosexual world, Rechy's text implies, would be free of contradictions if freed of restraints. Or as the authorial voice articulates:
Release the heterosexual pressures on our world—convert the rage—and you release a creative energy to enrich two worlds. Pressurize the homosexual world further, and it may yet set your straight world on fire.
And when the sexual revolution is won—if it is ever won—what of the fighters of that war? Doesn't a won revolution end the life of the revolutionary? What of the sexual outlaw?
One will mourn his passing.
The narrative points toward an apocalyptic completion of the outlaw function—toward the resolution of contradictions—as it looks forward to a social order liberated from the restraints imposed upon sexual behavior and, emblematically, upon all creative human endeavors. Such a resolution of mutual destruction posits a transcendent image of the revolutionary that the entire narrative has to this point found impossible.
Moreover, Rechy's narrative evokes a portrait of the male hustler premised on culturally inscribed discourses of rebellion, resistance, and revolution. This resistance can be viewed from a historical perspective as part of a larger movement of civil disobedience integrally related to the conditions of American civil rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s. From a cultural perspective, the resistance also evokes a romantic tradition traceable in American letters from Cooper and Emerson to (yes) Hemingway and Mailer. The artist stands as the creator of order within a disordered world, an agent of resistance to oppression and persecution. So too does the sexual outlaw.
As the narrative projects this image of the hustler, it becomes clear that the social order forming the "outside" also informs the psychosexual "inside." The novel thus describes sadomasochistic practices in the gay community as a dark imitation of heterosocial repression. In his journey through a maze of bathhouse orgies, paid sexual contact, and random encounters, Jim feels the appeal of sadomasochism as a play for power and dominance. He surrenders "to the part of him he hates," the master of "reeling scenes, spat words, rushing sensations, clashing emotions." Similarly, the narrative surrenders to the strutting power of the ultra-macho hustler and the garish femininity of the amazonian drag queens. Both are interiorized versions of sexual roles found in the straight world, roles against and also out of which the homosexual defines himself. The narrative thus proves ambiguous when indicating which sociosexual identities allow for a critical appropriation and which create a repressive interiorization. Rechy's novel fails to articulate adequately where critical inversion ends and slavish imitation begins.
As a repeated thematic and structural motif, the tensions and contradictions between opposites—repression and freedom, hegemony and alterity, masculinity and femininity, passivity and activity—create a picture of a fully traversed, schizophrenic world. The heterosocial arena scrutinized in The Sexual Outlaw attempts to create a black-and-white vision in which the actions it views as wholly good seek to repress those it perceives as wholly evil. Rechy's novel reveals this to be wholly inadequate and instead disrupts the neat acts of heterosocial definition and circumscription. In so doing, however, the narrative indicates that a movement beyond binary opposition is desirable while at the same time failing to effect such a movement. The narrative seeks an answer to problems of identity through what is essentially a strategy of appropriation and inversion. In appropriating discourses of oppression, the novel oscillates between exposing and hiding, attacking and bolstering, destroying and reconstructing repressive discursive acts. Finally, the desire for a world of absolutes—the sexual outlaw as absolute other, heterosocial order as absolute evil—mirrors the repressive practices against which this desire ostensibly speaks.
Though failing to articulate a truly revolutionary function for the sexual outlaw, the novel does not represent failure. Although it calls for synthesis and transcendence, the novel cannot accomplish either. Instead, it replicates, doubles, refutes, and challenges those signs of repression and discord that map the delimiting and silencing geography through and against which the male sexual outlaw acts. Clearly the novel reveals an ideological enslavement to the binaries of heterosocial sexual identification. In its exposure of this enslavement, in its attempt to reveal that which it has in 1977 not yet the vocabulary to articulate, The Sexual Outlaw not only reinscribes the binary of heterosocial order. It accepts it and rejects it and reveals an impossible topology from which future constructions of sexual identity may move.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6850
SOURCE: "Interview," in Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 113-25.
[In the following interview, Rechy discusses Latino culture, homosexuality, and the critical reception of his work.]
[Castillo:] You have said, understandably, that you don't like labels. Among the labels that have stuck are those of "gay writer," "outlaw," "hustler-novelist." I agree that such pigeonholing is very restricting, but what (if any) is the good side?
[Rechy:] I'll paraphrase Descartes: "We are seen, therefore we are." At one time the label "gay writer," while always being restrictive, announced visibility; that we were here. For very long, in literature and art—and in life—just the mention of gay subjects was forbidden. That gave rise to the necessary art of subtle but powerful "camouflage," "infiltration," and "sabotage" discussed later on. It also, alas, gave rise to "passing/collaborating." Once the phrase "gay writer" occurred, homosexuality existed as a subject in literature. That should have been a first step in the evolution toward the discarding of labels. That hasn't happened. The result is a dangerous "literary ghetto."
Paradoxically in the name of liberation, minority literature is being shoved away, into a "ghetto." Bookstore chains often have shelves labeled "alternative lifestyles," "Chicano literature," "black literature." That's segregation. Every few years, the New York Times, Times, Newsweek, Nation, others, publish patronizing "round-up" articles that purport to identify the "most important" Chicano writers or gay writers—I believe they've backed away from black writers, but not entirely from women. That the result is "ghettoization" is clear when you try to imagine a similar round-up of male heterosexual writers.
When John Updike is routinely identified in book-review journals as a "self-avowed heterosexual," I won't mind being identified as a "self-avowed homosexual," although I don't remember having taken a vow about sexuality, whereas I suspect Updike may have done just that.
Labeled by sexual persuasion, ethnicity, or the gender of a writer, such literature is guaranteed a restricted audience of like identification. Very few (one or two, if any!)—the least threatening—may find their way into English Departments that too often disdain minority voices. A few more may find a place in prestigious Chicano Studies courses. There, however, heavy emphasis is sometimes placed on political requirements over literary quality; a further separation occurs, a ghetto within a ghetto, where arguments might occur about who is or is not a "real Chicano writer."
Forgive the passion: Since as far back as 1959, I was writing about "Mexican-Americans," and identifying myself as such, in the Nation, Evergreen Review, Saturday Review. In virtually all my novels, the protagonist's mother is Mexican, like mine. Still, I've known the question to be asked, whether or not I'm a "real Chicano writer." Why? Because I wrote also about homosexuality?
What distinction would you make between "outlaw" and "outcast"?
"Outcast" suggests a cowering exile, victimized, defeated. "Outlaw" suggests defiance, an acceptance of being "outside the law." It carries an implication that the law itself may be wrong, therefore to be questioned, overturned. Oh, yes, let's face it, the "outlaw" is a romantic figure.
The emergence of "queer theory" has been much discussed recently. What impact do you foresee or have you seen (for example, possibilities for exposing the contingency of heterosexuality and whiteness as normalizing functions)?
Background first: At one time I refused to use the word "gay." I agreed with my friend Christopher Isherwood that it made us sound like "bliss ninnies." Some say the word originated around the late nineteenth century and described women in the theater and, by extension, "loose women," then transvestites. For years I continued to say "homosexual," not agreeing that an emphasis on sexual persuasion was all that bad, especially when it was that persuasion that branded us. Now I don't hesitate to use the word "gay," although it's a word I still dislike.
I doubt, though, that I'll ever use the "queer" in reference to myself, other homosexuals, or in the context of theory. For men of my generation, and indeed even newer generations, that word is fraught with hatred and violence. I understand the concept behind the use of the word, defusing its power. But if you apply that theory to other words—say, some of the ugliest references to women, black people, Jews—you end up with quite a dictionary of offensive words permitted.
Essential in "normalizing" homosexuality within the horizon of acceptability is this consideration: Homosexuals are the only minority born into the opposing camp; call it the "enemy camp." All other minorities are born into supportive environments—blacks into black families, Chicanos into Chicano families. ("Chicano" is another word I use but have difficulty with because in my childhood it was a term "Mexicans"—that's what we called ourselves—used to demean other Mexicans, a class distinction.) For that reason it's impossible to reconcile problems that deal with homosexuality with those of other minorities. Allegiances must be forged, yes, but differences must be acknowledged and dealt with. Among those: early on, homosexuals are forced to camouflage, pretend to be what we're not; we learn to mime, to "pass." ("Passing" is much easier, of course, for a homosexual than a black person or a Hispanic, generally more clearly identifiable by physical appearance.)
Before the subject of homosexuality was permitted in art, artists learned the effectiveness of infiltration and sabotage—Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Djuna Barnes, André Gide, García Lorca, Carson McCullers. Through their "gay sensibility," they communicated among homosexuals and, subliminally, "informed" and therefore taught heterosexuals. I didn't have to know that Tennessee Williams was gay to recognize that A Streetcar Named Desire was written by a gay man; no one other than a gay man could have created Blanche DuBois nor—importantly—Stanley Kowalski (mirror images, gender reversed). Edward Albee becomes very irked when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is spoken of in gay terms. I understand why, because critics at the time were vitriolically homophobic and reputations could be easily smashed—and he certainly was under virulent attack from those heterosexual critics, who may have driven him away from Broadway.
Still, that play is clearly written by a gay man. Part of its accomplishment is that it functions both as an exploration of a heterosexual marriage as well as a homosexual relationship. The "gay sensibility" does not in any way restrict the artist from illuminating all aspects of human experience; indeed, it may enrich by a broadened perspective. I think there is more astute revelation of heterosexual relationships in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past) than in all of Philip Roth's aggressively "heterosexual-male" explorations. Visconti, Almodóvar, Fassbinder—those artists have at one time or another all practiced the art of infiltration and sabotage through deliberate camouflage.
How does "camouflage" function?
Camouflage occurs when a gay subject is introduced with out identification (as per Albee's play), allowing the sensibility to infiltrate. Once infiltration occurs, sabotage of entrenched myths is possible. There are, unfortunately, collaborators on the front lines: often closeted artists (I don't know how to account for the fact that so many of them are critics!) who turn against their own. Today's gay writers might learn from the tactics of past noble literary saboteurs and infiltrators, in order to push our literature back into the so-called "mainstream" of art.
I've noticed that you put women and gays together in the literary ghetto you're describing.
I believe that the basis of antihomosexuality lies in anti-woman attitudes. The majority of heterosexual males see women as inferior. Since women are supposed to desire men, a man who desires another man must have abdicated at least some of his superior "maleness." The homosexual male, therefore, is looked down on as a betrayer of machismo—"heterosexualismo."
Of course there are many paradoxes and subterfuges: The reason institutions that celebrate heterosexual male bonding—police departments, the armed forces, etc.—resist so passionately the recruitment of openly gay men (although their ranks abound with secret homosexuals) is that such openly gay men expose the hidden sexual desire at the core of "heterosexual-male bonding." In the army and police departments, men are able to sleep together, shower together, grope each other (yes, it's heterosexual men who grope each other in army showers), be exclusively and intimately in each other's company, and still deny sexual desire, a denial gay men would threaten by their open presence within, and attraction to, the same exclusively male milieu.
And in relation to the literary and academic milieus?
There's much political confusion on the minority-literary front lines. At the 1992 International Book Fair in Guadalajara. I was accosted by a Chicano poet compiling some kind of list of Chicano writers. He was taking issue with me about my remarks about the restrictiveness resulting from being identified as a "Chicano writer." "You want me to remove you from my list?" he threatened, as if he was now embarked on creating a new "400."
Another confusion: the current mythology that gay, Chicano, or women's liberation begins at a designated point, and everything before that exemplifies, even upholds, "repression." Staunch warriors who fought lonely—and very dangerous—battles are discarded. Recent purported evaluations of gay literature virtually all entrench the untruth that is now an accepted cliché—that gay liberation began on the last weekend in July 1969 in New York, when drag queens resisted arrest and fought the police making what was then considered a routine raid. At that point—current gay literary recorders claim—gay writers rushed out of the closet, freed of all repressive attitudes of centuries, and instantly produced "liberated literature."
The Violet Quill, a recent book given major attention in some mainstream publications, not only perpetuates that mythology, but puts current gay literature exclusively in the hands of seven white male writers—of vastly varying talents (two of the best, exceptional, are now dead of AIDS)—a group that, as chronicled in that book, shared extravagant desserts during only eight literary-evening chats in Manhattan—and must have waved at each other more frequently at Fire Island.
No more repression in literature since Stonewall? Consider romantically tortured gay men pining after impossible figures of desire (often "straight"); consider "doomed Fire Island queens"; consider rampaging sadists violating the objects of their lust—all these characters populate the books of three writers currently held up as heralds of a liberated gay literature. Add to that only two salient manifestations of "new liberated attitudes": the current panting adulation (by safe, middle-class camp-followers of "low-life") of the quintessential figure of gay self-hatred, Genet, with his lyrical celebration of "trade"—often gay-bashers; and add to that Edmund White's leering attempted conversion of Maria Felix into a fag hag in his recent article in Vanity Fair. The picture that emerges of our attitudes is not quite "liberated."
Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, Isherwood's deceptively genteel A Single Man, other novels published before Stonewall—each, in its own way and by itself, possesses more insurrectionary power, more defiance, than the half dozen or so vaunted novels that now form the misguided canon of post-Stonewall "liberated" gay lit.
A personal note may be forgiven: in virtually all the recent volumes that purport to explore gay literature, only my first novel, City of Night, is discussed, in the pre-Stonewall period. Yet I've continued to explore gay subjects in every one of my novels into the present. Ignored in those restrictive explorations of "Stonewall literature" are: Numbers (1967), in which the protagonist begins to move away from the more repressive area of hustling to the freer arena of cruising; This Day's Death (1969), which records an arrest for a gay encounter; The Sexual Outlaw (1977), a document of outrage at persecution; and Rushes (1979), which (beyond my intention since no one could foresee anything as monstrous as AIDS emerging) records the end of the era of profligate sex, and does so with a saddened, resigned benediction at the end. My latest novel, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez (1992), explores the conflict of a Mexican woman who discovers her son is homosexual.
Why is the work of many writers who wrote before and continued to write after the riot in New York ignored? Because to acknowledge such work would question the spurious notion that a new, liberated literature emerged only from writers (mostly New York friends) who began to publish after Stonewall. A careful examination of that myth would discover an emergent consciousness that had little to do with Stonewall. That would force a re-evaluation, a correct locating of that major event as only one of many significant steps toward liberation. Years before Stonewall, powerful organized protests and resistance against antigay authorities occurred in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Another trademark of this limited gay criticism is the negative questioning of "stereotypes." That enrages me, the rejecting of those shock troops of revolution, outlawed outlaws. It was the "flaming queens" who most often resisted arrest during raids, including at the Stonewall Inn. Inspected closely—on the various battlefronts—gay, Chicano, black, feminist "stereotypes" often reveal themselves to be the earliest sources of confrontational rebellion.
Numerous artists and authors since the mid-eighties have been turning their artistic endeavors to writing the AIDS tragedy. Can you comment on the interrelation of social awareness and cultural form?
Whether HIV-positive or not, every gay artist has been jarred into an awareness of cruel, early death, as obituaries columns extend daily. Every gay man who was sexually active during the "profligate years" now possesses what might be called a graveyard of memories. Every now and then, you remember someone you had a sexual encounter with, and you wonder, "Did he survive?" Every gay writer, of whatever age, has been influenced by that climate pervaded by the awareness of early death. I believe that a literature of urgency and anger is resulting. That urgency may be found in the prose itself as well as the content, the compression and intensification of experience. (I think here of Dennis Cooper.)
The enormity of the toll AIDS has taken on the artistic landscape has yet to be grasped. How many works of art die with the early death of an artist? How many characters will never be born?
Does that vision inform your own work?
My view of the world is very bleak. The older I become, the more I understand a sentence that appeared in my first novel back in 1963: "It's possible to hate the filthy world and yet to love it with an abstract, pitying love." I increasingly view life as a trap, shaped by all the meanness and ugliness human beings (especially in the guise of religion and morality!) are capable of. Yet here we are. So, out of hope, spurious hope, some good occurs. I think that the most despairing writing still has a form of "hope" at its core. Otherwise, the only reaction would be silence. I often tell my writing students that the only unassailable reason I can see for living is that it provides a reasonable antecedent for the artistic creation.
Chicano/Latino Literary Forms and Traditions
Teresa de Lauretis has written that the "relatively greater scarcity of works of theory by lesbians and gay men of color may have been also a matter of different choices, different work priorities, different constituencies and forms of address." (1) Do you agree or disagree that there is a greater scarcity of such works of theoretical positioning? Why? (2) If you agree with de Lauretis that people of color may have to respond to different choices/priorities/constituencies, what are some of the factors involved?
I'm sure you've already become aware that I'm not quite well informed on current critical theory. But I do agree with the fact of its scarcity. In relation to gay males, a main factor is that at a time when such explorations would be developing, AIDS struck with such impact that everything else became secondary. In the '70s and early '80s emphasis on sexual activities to the point of bludgeoning excess was so pronounced that questioning, or even exploring, what was occurring was considered treacherous. I think that caused theoretical writers to pull back. Prominent intellectuals like George Stambolian and Richard Hall, two of the best gay critics, are now dead. David Ehrenstein, a black—journalist-critic, is doing some fresh viewing of the literary front, surveying a wide spectrum that allows for work by minorities.
Back to de Lauretis's view that people of color may have to respond to different priorities: gay people of color are quite often socioeconomically deprived, and so they have to deal with the ostracizing created by sexual persuasion and that created by class status. This produces problems different from those of the white male homosexual, with, often, vaster economic options. Sad to say, there do exist gay racists. There's even a Gay Republican Club.
Tomás Almaguer says, "Chicano men who embrace a 'gay' identity (based on the European-American sexual system) must reconcile this sexual identity with their primary socialization into a Latino culture that does not recognize such a construction: there is no cultural equivalent to the modern 'gay man' in the Mexican Latin-American sexual system."
True. Mexican culture adds hateful factors to the forming of a solid homosexual identity, in main part because of the power of the Catholic church, although I would say a majority of priests and high prelates are themselves gay. Perhaps because of their entrenched view of women as either virgins or whores—the adoration of Our Lady of Guadalupe by so many Mexican men adds to this factor. Hispanic heterosexuals, still so determinedly "macho," often seem to think that in order to be "men" they must denounce homosexuals, and do so fiercely at times. Many Mexican men still feel they have to devote at least three hours—give or take an hour or two—each weekend, to ogle and insult women on city streets, and to heckling queens.
Gay-bashing perpetrated by Hispanic males is particularly prevalent and violent in Los Angeles and other American cities. In some Latin countries the murder of homosexuals by death squads is condoned—all legacies of the entrenched culture of machismo, and of the Catholic church.
I resent the current reference to "Catholic-bashing" used to describe verbal criticism of the Catholic church. The phrase is taken from "gay-bashing," and that is real bashing—beating, bloodying, savage assaults, murder, not the softened criticism prelates of the church so misguidedly describe as "bashing."
Most forms of oppression against women and of homosexuals would end tomorrow if the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant religious hierarchies spoke loudly, with true morality, against such oppression. Instead, their repeated judgments on homosexuals and, more implicitly, on women incite violence, rape, abuse.
What impact does this primary socialization within a Latino culture have on literary form?
I think the Hispanic Catholic church has a powerful influence on all artists. What artist would fail to be influenced forever by the assault of colors when you enter a church, the shift of lights on stained-glass windows, and the gaudiest paintings in the world? I sometimes—not always! not always!—write in "Mexican-Catholic-Church style." This is a rich, ripe style that comes from early exposure to blood-drenched statues of saints writhing in exhibitionistic agony in churches; statues real and artificial at the same time (like the best art); exposure to the grand melodrama of the journey to Calvary, performed by gorgeous agonized creatures; the operatic excess of Christ's Seven Last Words; the poetic ritualism of the Stations of the Cross; the glorious extravagance of High Mass, the greatest drag show on earth; the aggressive mourning of Holy Week; the invited, not to say extorted, tears and breast-pounding guilt—all, all overseen by glamorous male and female angels.
Move to the peripheries of that religion, and you have more irresistible factors: the curanderos, sightings of the Madonna, beatas whose impeccable timing would make Bette Davis weep, the echoing wails of la Llorona. Don't you infer it all, in Orozco's comic-strip-as-great-art murals? In the rhythm of colors in Rivera's paintings?
Even in the preceding paragraphs, you find that influence, no?
There's this, too: Catholicism deals centrally with mystery, which it attempts to solve by "faith." Abandoning that leap required to accept "faith," you're left only with glaring mystery, the awesome mystery that surrounds us constantly, because there's "no substitute for salvation" (a phrase that appears in all my books), a spurious salvation possible only through "faith." The best artists, I believe, deal not with solving mysteries but with exploring individual mysteries clearly. I think that much Hispanic art is mysterious—look at entirely different artists like Gabriel García Márquez, Elena Poniatowska, Manuel Puig, Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz. Perhaps one reason why there's never been a successful production of García Lorca's dramas in English-speaking countries is that translation automatically disconnects the action (performance) from the "Hispanic Sensibility," with its tendency toward drama and high melodrama, rich symbolism, even allegory, mythical resonance.
How does minority literature reflect on and revise dominant Western literary strategies? Become an alternative model for "literature"?
We move again into the problems of "ghettoizing voices." All categorization that limits the artist is negative. It fascinates me as much as it appalls me that often minorities contribute to this separation, confusing labeled recognition with "success." This is literature; this is minority literature. Consider that some of the recently emergent "Chicano writers" have received an amount of mainstream attention, but the sales of such books have been limited; not one has crossed the line enough to become, say, a best-seller. (I'm not saying that's the goal, just an indication of limitations.)
Before the "ghettoization of literature," several "minority books" did become best-sellers. My own City of Night—whose protagonist, dammit, is Chicano—was a top national best-seller for seven months. Numbers and The Sexual Outlaw—both of which also have Chicano protagonists—were national best-sellers.
I think even your critics have been struck by the richness of symbolic structure in all your works.
In all my novels, I extend "realism" into metaphor for deeper meaning. In City of Night, I experimented with several literary forms in individual chapters: for example, the story of a "great homosexual beauty" is told as a Greek tragedy, with chorus. The structure of the last portrait section ("White Sheets") is borrowed from my fascination with mathematics. I saw the relationship between the two characters in that chapter in terms similar to those involved plotting an algebraic equation on a graph; given several factors, locating the intersection of two lines to determine the exact point of revelation.
In Numbers, I was writing about a series of sexual encounters, but the central metaphor is death, dying. In Rushes, I wrote about one night in a sado-masochistic bar/orgy room; but its structure is a carefully constructed mass. In The Fourth Angel, and in my play based on that novel, Tigers Wild, I wrote about Texas teenagers on a rampage; they are also rebelling angels. In The Vampires, a lush Caribbean island doubles over as a plush hell. (That novel was as profoundly influenced by the Catholic church as it was by a favorite comic strip, "Terry and the Pirates.") In Bodies and Souls, I commented on the perfection of what we call "accident," fate seen clearly only in retrospect. In Marilyn's Daughter, I wrote about the act of self-creation—in art, in life, and I used Marilyn Monroe as the epitome of self-conscious art. In The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, I extend the book into surrealism, and then fable.
Again forgive the passion—after all, that is an element of the Hispanic Sensibility! Before City of Night appeared in full in 1963 (sections had been printed in literary quarterlies), I was being written about and talked about as an important young writer, by, among others, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Ken Kesey, Christopher Isherwood, Herbert Gold, Larry McMurtry. Then a very disturbed man, Alfred Chester, was given column after column of newsprint by the New York Review of Books to assault City of Night; that review, a malicious mugging disguised as literary criticism, went so far as to question my existence: "I can hardly believe there is a real John Rechy."
Appearing in the journal that vaunts its literary authenticity while actually being notoriously bigoted, that review, so powerfully strident, influenced the reviews that followed. Richard Gilman's shrill denunciation in the New Republic was almost as vicious, extending Chester's questioning of my existence, as did a front-page featured review in the Village Voice [1 Aug. 1963]. To protect my threatened privacy, I refused to promote the book and spent the first months of its publication in the Caribbean. But the questioning among those venomous men came from a hoping that I did not exist, because my existence disturbed them deeply psychologically. Without the courage to face that, they attacked.
Even today I continue to battle those first assaults that attempted to undo my reputation as a serious writer. Recently, the New York Review of Books, which had invited the initial assault, issued a collection of its "representative essays" to be sent to new subscribers. The repulsive review of City of Night was included, with its original inflammatory title—"Fruit Salad." Offensive even at the time it had appeared, it was even more offensive in 1988.
Imagine a comparable title given to a review of a book about women, about blacks, about Jews in a literary journal that purports to be intellectually impeccable? I protested to Barbara Epstein, the editor, and received an apology for using the reckless headline. Last year, in a collection of Gore Vidal's essays, Vidal, in his foreword, referred to Chester's review as an example of "high criticism" although "absolutely unfair." I wrote Vidal in protest and received a letter in which he expressed admiration for City of Night, denounced Chester as a "monster," and claimed that in writing his foreword he had "succumbed" to the monster's "black arts." Yet there the praising reference remains in his prizewinning collection.
Writers must protest mistreatment. I do so whenever I detect malice masquerading as criticism. After all, literary history proves over and over that posterity is often much less demanding than the occasional Sunday book reviewer. I have no doubt that the "monster" Chester and his disciple Gilman will exist mainly in derisive footnotes.
I'm gratified by the fact that many of my books, often initially critically attacked, are required reading in literature courses, and continue to be translated virtually every year.
These literature courses, until recently, however, have not been the Chicano literature courses you mentioned earlier. How to you respond to critics who complain that you don't deal overtly enough with matters of Chicano identity?
At the end of The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, Amalia utters the cry of Mexican liberation: "No more!"
I've always admired the strength of Mexican women, like my mother—and my Amalia, who's entirely different from my mother. The Mexican women I remember from my background are monuments to endurability. Yet, to most, they're invisible, or often seen only as maids.
It was largely out of admiration for those women—sustained by their faith—that I created Amalia Gómez, exploring her longing for a miracle, a visit from the Holy Mother, amid all the prejudice and desolation of her life.
Prejudice against Hispanics is still rampant, perhaps growing. Take a drive down the San Fernando Road in Glendale, in California; you'll see defeated Hispanic men anxious to get work, any kind of work. Anglos drive by in their trucks. The workers accept whatever they're offered. On the evening news you'll hear politicians talking about the urgent need to "stop those illegals." Near that Shangri-la of wealth where I teach, USC, there are neighborhoods of poverty, where Hispanic families live in one apartment in shifts, sharing the rent; almost everywhere, people sleep in darkened corners. Drive down Alvarado, see those lovely young Hispanic women, some so fresh here they wear no makeup. They'll take any job as maids. If they're illegal, they'll work for whatever they're paid.
Some people—even middle-class Hispanics—don't know that, don't want to know it, see it—prefer to relegate it to the past. In the sewing factories, today, there are women who work eight hours a day, six days a week for as little as $60 a week; some bring their children and let them sleep on rolls of cloth—in buildings known as firetraps. These are "invisible women."
At the border at San Diego, at times dozens of Anglos will gather in their cars, to shine their lights, to help entrap illegal aliens. They blow their horns and shout encouragement at "la migra." Shootings occur randomly by the border patrol and some self-identified "patriots." Even their own people rob those fleeing across the border, bandit Mexicans preying on their own. Of the currently acknowledged one out of seven people in the country living in official poverty, a huge number must be Hispanics.
When I was a kid in grammar school, in El Paso, Texas, "Mexicans" were regularly inspected for lice, Anglo children watching fascinated. We were separated for an hour to be taught pronunciation—the difference between "ch" and "sh," while Anglo children played outside. We had to sing "Home on the Range," but instead of saying "where seldom is heard a discouraging word" we had to substitute "where never is heard—." Throughout Texas at the time, signs warned "spiks, niggers, and dogs" to stay out.
In the interior of Texas—like gothic Balmorhea—Mexicans were segregated in movie theaters. As a child—in order to be hurt less—I allowed my ethnic identity to remain in limbo, neither denying it nor proclaiming it. When that changed, people would often say to me, "Oh, don't say you're Mexican; you must be Spanish"—as if allowing me to escape some terrible judgment. Out of all those early experiences and observations. I wrote some of my first articles, beginning in 1959, about poverty, prejudice against Mexicans, for the Nation, Saturday Review.
I view all discrimination as a hungry evil. It appalls me that so very often minorities discriminate against others. When I hear Chicanos screech "faggot" and read of their initiating gay-bashings—when I learn that some Jews oppose including the names of homosexuals in a memorial to those who died in concentration camps, when I see some women cops determined to rival male cops as bullies, when I read the rantings and pantings of black conservative-darling Stanley Crouch against homosexuals and black women, when I hear about homosexual nightclubs that exclude women and minorities, I wonder … what's the use?
What are some of the operative questions for a Chicano writer going into the twenty-first century?
Identifying oneself overtly as a "Chicano writer" or "infiltrating," becoming a literary saboteur. For me, the latter is the more challenging and, finally, the most effective.
Art and Artifice
In your book Marilyn's Daughter, the organizing image is an instantly recognizable icon or artifice. Can you comment on the importance of artifice in that novel or in your work in general?
I'm fascinated by artifice; I never speak about "reality" as a desirable, or possible, element in fiction. In my classes I refer to verisimilitude. I refer to "tricks" that ensure that—techniques. I'm intrigued by similarities in seeming opposites: "Fem" drag queens sprinkled with sequins are very much like "leathermen" all decked out in black straps and glittery studs. In their "macho" rigidity, they become very "gay." Annoyed by my rigid attitude, a queen on the street once said these words of wisdom to me: "Honey, your muscles are as gay as my drag." Yes, muscles are as much a decoration as drag, and they do become quite as "gay."
The narrator in City of Night recreates himself, creates a facade to be reacted to. When it drops, at the end of the novel, during Mardi Gras, when everyone else is masked, he's almost destroyed.
For me, Marilyn Monroe is a masterpiece of artifice elevated to art. Her creator was an unwanted young woman named Norma Jeane Baker. Norma Jeane moved from home to foster home, unhappy, unwanted. A superb artist, she created Marilyn Monroe, step by step, all contradictions, lies, variations. Even her origin is in ambiguity—where, from whom, when? Norma Jeane remained a sad, finally tragic woman, abused by the Kennedys, who saw her as a plaything, a needy orphan who called herself "Marilyn Monroe." But Norma Jeane's creation, the woman we now celebrate as Marilyn Monroe, is a victorious work of art; and by becoming a questioning and integral part of the history of the Kennedys, she triumphs over them. Does art justify a painful life? I don't know. But art does remain, and pain finally dies, no?
My closeness to Marilyn Monroe comes additionally out of the fact that as a gay Chicano, I, too, have had to remake myself constantly. The hustler-narrator of City of Night learns poses, adopts them, to mask vulnerability. On the street, he's paid for the role he's playing, like an actor; the artist, the sensitive child, looks on in surprise. In Numbers, the protagonist is an extension of the earlier narrator. Here, the narcissism has become even more overt, more consuming: Johnny Rio's creation of himself is more perfected, and so, paradoxically, that renders him even more vulnerable; there's more to break.
In my life, at a certain point when I could no longer be a "youngman," I took up body-building, easing over the transition from "youngman" to "man."
What kind of growth would you like to see in your readers?
Like many other writers, I feel that my writing has been misunderstood, or, rather, misviewed. The subject material of my first novel disturbed so many closeted male reviewers psychologically that they did not even look for literary quality. I have always been a literary writer, very dedicated to form. In City of Night I deliberately wanted to capture the rhythms of rock and roll. My attention to form has increased with each book I write.
As an example, I'll expand on what I said before about my novel Rushes. In it, I write about one night in a leather bar, a night that ends up in an S & M orgy room. The novel is structured as a mass: The bar is described to look like an altar. The characters locate themselves in the positions of priest and acolytes during Mass. On the walls of the Rushes Bar there are sketchy erotic drawings. These find parallels in the Stations of the Cross, the last panel fading into unintelligible scrawls, to suggest the ambiguity of the possible Fifteenth Station. There is a "baptism" and an "offertory." At the end a metaphoric crucifixion and an actual one (gay-bashing) occur simultaneously, one inside the orgy room, the other outside. The novel/mass ends with a surrendered benediction.
Still, today, I find myself viewed as a writer whose primary contribution is one of uncovering once-taboo subjects—in my first book. I hope eventually my whole work will be viewed beyond subject matter.
Can you outline the development of your oeuvre? Do you see it as showing distinct phases or transformations? What are its continuities? Discontinuities?
I'm surprised at times to write down a thought for including in a future book and then finding that same thought in an earlier book of mine. Obviously themes recur. I find myself moving away from so-called "realism." I think, of the literary forms, autobiography is the most fraudulent, because the author claims: "This is true, I lived it." But it's no longer being lived, it's being remembered, selectively. The next most fraudulent form is biography: The author dares to assume he can grasp another's life! The most honest of the literary forms is … fiction. The writer says, "This is a lie and I'm going to try like hell to convince you it's true."
Is there anything you'd like to disinherit? Unpublish?
Yes, my third novel, This Day's Death, although it does contain a good portrait of a Mexican woman, Miss Lucia.
What are your most urgent projects now?
I would like to live to see my novel Bodies and Souls, which I often consider my best, reissued in a wonderful edition and for it to receive the attention I believe it deserves. It's an epic novel that attempts to define contemporary America through a view of Los Angeles today, a disturbed modern paradise populated by still-rebelling "angels." Its gallery of characters includes a pornographic actress, a Mr. Universe; a bag-woman, a Chicano teenager, a gothic female evangelist, a black maid from Watts, a male stripper, a TV anchorwoman, a wealthy judge in Bel Air, many others. Winding peripherally through those lives are a young woman, Lisa, and two young men, Orin and "Jesse James"—"lost angels" who bring about the book's apocalyptic ending. Throughout, I evoke scenes out of classic American films like White Heat. The ending evokes that of Duel in the Sun.
Bodies and Souls was ambushed by a series of circumstances that began right after it was finished. Because of my loyalty to my original publishers, Grove Press, which had at the time almost stopped publishing, I accepted a good offer from my very talented editor there, who was then forming his own publishing house. He wanted to make Bodies and Souls the new company's first book. A dream come true—a major new company's first original book—turned into a writer's nightmare I regret virtually every day of my life. When the offer for the book was made, I had quickly instructed my agent to withdraw the novel from several other prominent publishers who wanted it. What followed was one of those ambushes that make a writer ask, "My God, it's difficult enough; what's next?"
The hardcover edition that was published was, at best, makeshift—actually ugly—printed on gray paper, without endsheets, bound so clumsily that the spine broke on the very first opening. There were hundreds of typographical errors, pages printed askew, the type running off the margins. The trade edition, published simultaneously, was equally ragged. I constantly wonder why I didn't demand publication be stopped until a new edition was printed, but the book was already advertised, and in the bookstores.
Written from advance galleys before the shoddy edition was seen, two excellent reviews appeared, one in the New York Times Book Review, which borrowed my description of Los Angeles to call the book "a scarred beauty"; and one in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, which lauded it as a "memorable feast." A few more fine reviews appeared. But as soon as the shoddy edition was seen, reviews stopped. The incorrect perception was that a book brought out in such condition must have been rejected by everyone—and of course that was not so.
At my insistence, eventually the publishers did release fair hardback and trade editions—pages straightened, typographical errors corrected, a sturdier binding. Subsequently, a good paperback edition was issued. All remain in print, including, alas, the terrifying editions. The novel did appear to praise in England, and recently was published in Italy. A Spanish edition is pending.
I hope I'll live to see that book assigned its rightful place, because—I'm not going to hesitate to say it—it's a grand achievement.
I've just finished Our Lady of Babylon, the title a reference to the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation. It's a novel about a woman who claims she was Eve—and Salome and Delilah and Helen and Medea—and la Malinche—all women blamed for enormous catastrophes, and called "Whores." She sets out to redeem them. I'm working on two other novels: Love in the Backrooms: The Sequel to City of Night (it moves from 1963 to 1993); and Autobiography: A Novel.
In Autobiography: A Novel, I'm trying to re-create—or, more accurately, to imagine—the lives of my father, my mother, their families, a saga that ranges from Mexico City into the United States: my father's family ties to Porfirio Díaz, my mother's flight from Chihuahua to avoid Pancho Villa's amorous advances. I'll dramatize scenes as they might have occurred in their lives, as I might have viewed them if I had been there: my mother dancing at a ball in Chihuahua as a young girl—how I might have courted her if I had been one of her suitors; my father challenging his "aristocratic" and autocratic mother. I'm trying to achieve a unique fictional "truth," imagined out of what I've been told are facts, facts being nothing more than the memories that survive, that are told—all already altered by that selectivity, memory being the first editor.
I have from the beginning of my writing (I began my first novel at age eight) wanted to give order to the anarchy of experience. That's possible only in art. There's no "truth" in art. The greater the artist, the greater the lie. Like a magician, the artist convinces us that what we're "seeing" is "real," true, whereas it's all trickery, grand artifice, wonderful lies, including the ones that memory harbors.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
SOURCE: "Wild Things," in Book World, July 21, 1996, p. 8.
[In the following review, Hand argues that while the idea behind Our Lady of Babylon is good, Rechy's narrative is choppy and the novel is a disappointment.]
Millenarianism appears to have spawned its own literary subgenre: Here at the end of history, novelists are rewriting history, real or imagined, often with deliberately Gothic overtones. So we have Theodore Roszak putting a distaff spin on bad science in The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and Jack Dann doing much the same with Leonardo da Vinci in The Memory Cathedral; Anne Rice giving us Memnoch the Devil and an alternative history of hell, with Anonymous painting the Capital in similar shades with Primary Colors.
Now John Rechy joins the game with Our Lady of Babylon, which is nothing less than an effort to "redeem with the truth the lives of women unjustly blamed and called 'whore,' a word we shall defuse so that it shall evoke those thus redeemed." And there are a lot of these bad skirts to chase through history, beginning with Eve and Cassandra and Mary Magdalene, proceeding down through Salome and Medea and ending up around the time of Madame du Barry, who may have been a lady to Cole Porter but gets slammed with the vile epithet nonetheless.
Rechy is best known as the author of City of Night, the groundbreaking novel whose hustler protagonist was more wounded angel than Pasolini psychopath. Rechy would seem a properly lickerish choreographer for all those wantons. Sadly, he fails to rise to the occasion, but then who would not be intimidated by a line of chorines that includes Jezebel and Herodias?
Our Lady of Babylon begins with a lady in flight from the appalling murder of her husband during their wedding ceremony. Actually, it begins with a vision of Eve in the Garden; actually, no, in heaven with some sexy angels; actually, no, with St. John the Divine confronting the Whore of Babylon; actually, no, with Helen at the Fall of Troy; actually—
Actually, a good deal that is wrong with Our Lady of Babylon stems from the relentless narrative crosscutting that Rechy employs from page 1 onward. The lady in question takes shelter with one Madame Bernice, a mystic who recognizes in her guest someone whose dreams contain the "essence" of all those fallen women. Madame Bernice urges the lady to share her visions of the Universal Adventuress, over endless cups of tea and petits four and under the watchful gaze of a tame peacock named Ermenegildo. The lady willingly complies (natch), but her subsequent accounts of myriad couplings are nearly all broken off in mid-gasp—by annoying questions from Madame Bernice, by annoying clanks of plot machinery, by enemies of the lady, human and divine; by that damn peacock. In Our Lady of Babylon John Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream" of fiction never gets anywhere close to the REM state: The reader suffers from a terminal and extremely frustrating case of narrative interruptus.
Which is a shame, because Rechy writes gracefully, and sometimes poignantly, of the fate of fallen women over the centuries. It's all rather Technicolor tartdom—one can too easily imagine Anne Baxter doing a kittenish Salome in De Mille drag—but not without its entertainment value. Still, Rechy proclaims his serious intent from the start. What he delivers instead is an endless parade of airbrushed jades, a serious error—like casting a Vargas Girl in the Angelica Huston role (the men all sort of look like Fabio). So Salome and Magdalena and the titular whores are about 15 when we first meet them, all gorgeous, all badly maligned, all resigned to meet their fates with noble suffering.
Hey, girls—can we talk? The whole point of being bad is to—well, be bad, and a reader might realistically expect to see these naughty kitties redeemed by something other than dewy eyes and moist lips. But Rechy ditches any real attempts at revisionist history early on. For example, Mary Magdalene and Judas and Jesus meet cute, as teenagers, and travel together in a sexy (though sexless) menage under the watchful eyes of the Virgin, who wears blue a la Pinocchio's Good Fairy and sort of acts like her, too, making sure Judas and the Magdalene keep their hands to themselves. (I will skip over the magic mushroom sequence.)
Happily, Our Lady of Babylon is not without its intentional humor, too. Madame Bernice suggests that the lady "underplay the orgasmic imagery" in her accounts. "You must keep in mind that people are very strange about God and sex." And Rechy does manage to pull off a compelling version of Medea's tale. Here, at last, is an unrepentant woman wronged, taking horrible vengeance on the man she loves—and Rechy makes her sympathetic and not monstrous. If only he'd been able to take the rest of his tired harlots and give them some of her fire. Instead, Our Lady of Babylon sashays in with paint and jewels and a sexy come-on, but she doesn't deliver. There's a name for girls like that, and it's not a nice one.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296
Bredbeck, Gregory W. "John Rechy." In Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 340-51. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Provides an overview of Rechy's life and works as well as analysis of his critical reception.
Christian, Karen. "Will the 'Real Chicano' Please Stand Up? The Challenge of John Rechy and Sheila Ortiz Taylor to Chicano Essentialism." The Americas Review 20, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 89-104.
Argues that Rechy and Sheila Ortiz Taylor have not been considered true Chicano voices because their work is perceived as a threat to established Chicano literature.
Gutiérrez-Jones, Carl. "Desiring B/orders." Diacritics 25, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 99-112.
Discusses Rechy's exploration of Chicano political culture.
Koponen, Wilfrid R. "Denial: Falconer and City of Night." In Embracing a Gay Identity: Gay Novels as Guides, pp. 27-51. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1993.
Compares John Cheever's Falconer with Rechy's City of Night, focusing on the theme of denial.
Steuernagel, Trudy. "Contemporary Homosexual Fiction and the Gay Rights Movement." Journal of Popular Culture 20, No. 3 (Winter 1986): 125-34.
Discusses the relationship between the gay rights movement and literature, arguing that while City of Night portrays the homosexual as a rebel, Rechy's later novels show homosexuals as deviants and destructive.
Woods, Terry. "Starless and Black: Alienation in Gay Literature." In Lesbian and Gay Writing: An Anthology of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Lilly, pp. 129-52. Houndmills, England: The Macmillan Press, 1990.
Woods compares Rechy's work with that of Andrew Holleran, Joe Orton, and Hart Crane as she considers the issue of alienation in gay literature.
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