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Rechy, John 1934–
Rechy is an American novelist and essayist. He is considered by some to have been in the vanguard of the New Journalism movement for pieces that appeared in the early sixties in Evergreen Review. From one of these pieces came his first novel, City of Night, a slangy, nightmarish vision of homosexuality. Rechy belongs, says Terry Southern, "to the self-revelatory school of Romantic Agony. The school's basic rule is 'Feel everything and leave nothing unsaid.'" (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 7, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.
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By making [the hero of Numbers] an Adonis, Rechy attempts to show that whatever his outward appearance, the homosexual is basically a person who is unsure of himself, a person constantly in search of acceptance. He continually relives the initial crisis, the trauma of parental rejection…. The homosexual, the "cruiser," is an eternal Morgan in search of his Pemberton. The monotony of Rechy's novel, which might be considered a technical defect, marvelously evokes the obsessive nature, the emptiness, of such contacts, and the cruiser's monomania. For the cruiser, cruising is not only a favorite pastime but a vital activity. He has the impression that he does not exist unless he can attract a partner: "The first one today! Johnny thinks. I'm alive!" And this thought makes us aware that the search for a partner is an act of survival, and that nothing can appease it, neither finding an ideal lover, who is quickly cut down to human dimensions, nor the feeling of satiety that many sexual conquests can provide…. (p. 178)
Georges-Michel Sarotte, "Three Categories of Homosexual," in his Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin, translated by Richard Miller (copyright © 1978 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.; originally published as Comme un frère, Comme un amant: l'homosexualité masculine dans le roman et le théâtre américains de Herman Melville à James Baldwin, Flammarion, 1976), Doubleday, 1978, pp. 164-85.∗
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[There's] no doubt in my mind that [the sadism in "Rushes"] is not just a ritual played out among characters. It's also a literary rite directed at the reader. The language of the text demands that the reader suffer sexually: hurt, submit, and therefore love this book.
That's too much to ask. Still, provided one is willing to make the effort, there's a lot to appreciate here, if not to love. For one thing, Mr. Rechy is working a difficult vein of fiction, the tragedy of manners. For another, he supplies an abundance of arcane information about the homosexual pecking order. Then there's the book's construction. It's painstaking, it's controlled by chains of correspondence that link, for example, the garish paintings on the walls of the bar to the medieval Stations of the Cross, leading to the degradation of the last chapter.
But finally it seems to me that almost none of this matters, because the book's sight and speech are hopelessly infected. Of course, I couldn't help wondering whether my own preferences in matters sexual made me unreceptive to the novel. Maybe so; but let me ask the reader of this review to imagine, if he will, a moment of male-female lust described as follows: "Sexual arousement … is flailed by fear." Or try: "Sometimes in the isolated reality of the chemical sexmoments…." If these were heterosexmoments, they would be no better. Clotted with jargon, delirious with repetition and weak with the heavy breathing of pornography, "Rushes" has several close brushes with the Angel of Death. (pp. 14-15)
Alan Friedman, "Pleasure and Pain," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1980, pp. 14-15.∗
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John Rechy's fiction has always shown an interest in the night side of human feeling. He is drawn to the illicit, to outcasts, to the transgressor's knowledge….
Rushes, though yet another exploration of the underground, represents a culmination of Rechy's themes. Unaccommodating, aggressive, brooding, it is Rechy's most ambitious work stylistically and also in the questions it raises about the quality of "liberation."
A self-conscious religious ardour inspires the language of this novel…. The devout tone is meant to dignify the hypnotic power the bar holds over its clientele, to give solemnity to the intoxication—the rush—of dangerous desires. This evocation of fervent, spiritual feeling contrasts sharply with the sordid scenes described, suggesting an ambivalence in Rechy's portrayal of the homosexual underground—is it paradise or purgatory? The religious metaphors are crudely overreaching. But the ambivalence appeals to the moral predisposition of Rechy's audience, and the dense and elevated language is a familiar way, in fiction, to convey the consecration of sensuality.
The characters are deliberately contrived, scarcely more than vessels for Rechy's reflections. They are seen from the inside, but not profoundly. There is so much on Rechy's mind—the nature of masculinity, the fascination of the "sex-hunt," the tyranny of beauty, the dread of aging, attitudes toward women and transvestites, violence and subjugation, the poverty of feeling. Delineation of character is thus secondary, resulting in the kind of writing Mary McCarthy once called ventriloquism….
Rechy is indifferent to the psychologies of his characters. In this he is unlike most novelists with homosexual protagonists who are at pains to explain the history of their preoccupation. During the long, long night of drinking, talking, plotting, and watching, Rechy's characters do not think back to unhappy childhoods or to idyllic adolescent affairs….
Though Rechy has chosen these men for what they represent, one is not certain that he accepts their judgments of the scene. Don is a peculiar presence in this novel, not one of the "cool, handsome, desirable, pastless men."…
Though Don speaks against "fake machos" and S&M, Rechy makes the causes for his outbursts paranoia or mere jealousy…. His suffering is appalling, but Rechy cannot bring himself to redeem it. One suspects that Rechy's own contempt for hysterical weakness is what makes him refuse to give Don the capacity to analyze, learn, or endure. Rechy's secret allegiance is to the lone, tough stud, men born with the luck of not being tacky, and he cannot let Don get away with any criticism….
In the world of the Rushes, virility is an absolute aesthetic value. The congregation of beautiful men, cupbearers to the immortals all, betrays Rechy's narcissistic impulses, his singular worship of the masculine image. Rechy falls into a strenuous adjectival insistence to express the mysterious attraction of the Sacred Band and its battlefield….
Much of the menace and power of this novel depends on a saturation of mood, on a voluptuous concentration of place. Everything is meticulously described and therefore aggrandized: the arcane rituals, the bodies, the styles, the urgent yearnings, the growling music, the bar's squalor. Everyone is trapped by need.
Detachment and skepticism are left to Endore, who knows not all the men are beautiful and muses on the intrinsic ugliness buried in beauty…. Endore is not as accepting of the fantasies as the others. He sees the macho poses as the new conformity, "as clearly homosexual as drag" and knows that the men dressed as cowboys, motorcyclists, construction workers, policemen, soldiers, and lumberjacks comprise a "make-believe working class," exaggerated versions of what a retrogressive and anti-homosexual society supposedly finds attractive in men. Yet, while Endore recognizes the vulgarity in the underground, he cannot get beyond conventional pieties about "oppression" to explain any of it. (p. 33)
Elitist tendencies are strong in the American homoerotic tradition—the chic of going where others do not go, the vanity in knowing what others do not know. The men in the Rushes have an inflated notion of their cultural significance…. The elements of sexual wish-fulfillment—affluence, beauty, exotic setting—are so pronounced in this novel that the political message is diluted. Moral conclusions shift. Rushes, for all its filth and negative lyricism, is as romantic a creation as the shimmering Dancer from the Dance. (pp. 33-4)
In the middle of all this lust for degradation, the willful diminishment of the soul, Endore clarifies his feelings. He celebrates the "unique" joy of the lifestyle, the "sex hunt," yet despises the Rack and its sadism because it is "permeated by the punishment for sex…. This is what they have done to us!"
This seems a somewhat spurious and evasive explanation for self-hatred. Throughout the novel, there runs the implication that the brutality of sadomasochism has its origins in the violent hatred of homosexuality on the outside….
Rushes, for all its daring and intensity, does not have the authority of the nocturnal torment in Gide's Immoralist: "This objectless liberty is a burden to me." Somewhere, in the blending of ruthlessness and refinement of feeling, Rechy retreats from his own insights and reduces a grave matter of consciousness—the wish to injure and be injured—to facile sociology. And that is the real obscenity of this provocative work. (p. 34)
Darryl Pinckney, "Sacraments or Sinews?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 9, March 3, 1980, pp. 33-4.
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Rushes is not a novel of propaganda; if any political statement is to be derived from the novel, it would seem to be that the oppressive "straight" world is ultimately responsible for the grotesque and perverse behavior to which the alienated homosexual is driven. The novel has much wider social implications, however. Rushes presents not so much the homosexual world but a particular cult within it. When it is seen as a cult with all the dogmas and trappings of a religion, the world of Rushes becomes an expression of and a metaphor for what Christopher Lasch calls the "culture of narcissism." By means of biblical and liturgical epigraphs before each chapter, together with frequent use of Christian terminology and symbols within the novel, Rechy sets up an ironic contrast between the shared values of Christian community and the self-seeking pilgrimages of the characters presented. But the empty ritualism of Rushes suggests far more about American culture than about homosexuality….
The hunt is not merely for sex—most of the characters seem insensate and beyond feeling for ordinary sexual contact in any case—but for total fusion, however momentary. It is the desire to achieve what can't be achieved, it seems, in the world outside. The "macho" world of the bar cannot be reconciled to the world of jobs, responsibilities, and even love. In the ritual of the cult, distinctions blur, opposites meld; but the melding produces not the fusion of a greater wholeness but only a more desperate isolation. Outside, as at the end of the novel, is the world of irreconcilable opposites, represented in this case by the queer-hating attackers who come not for imitation or ritual violence but for the real thing.
Rechy's novel is a triumph of dramatic skill. The horror of his infernal cult is fully realized, but often only in spite of the over-rich language. At times it is as if one of his characters has become the author, seeking in a straining lyricism to justify the horror or to blur the distinction between beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain, heaven and hell.
David Taylor, "Loving Violence," in The American Book Review (© 1980 by The American Book Review), Vol. 11, No. 4, June, 1980, p. 9.