John Rechy Rechy, John (Vol. 107) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Lee T. Lemon (review date Fall 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

John Rechy with James R. Giles (interview date Summer 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5607 words.)

James R. Giles (essay date November 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6309 words.)

Ben Satterfield (essay date Winter 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2974 words.)

Emmanuel S. Nelson (essay date Summer 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3247 words.)

Rafael Perez-Torres (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6934 words.)

John Rechy with Debra Castillo (interview date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]

Outlaw Aesthetics

[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;...

(The entire section is 6850 words.)

Elizabeth Hand (review date 21 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 296 words.)