The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens

by John Rechy
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The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

There was always more than a touch of the picaresque in John Rechy’s novels. Those first ones especially, the ones by which most readers will remember him—City of Night (1963) and Numbers (1967)—were episodic romps through an erotic underworld many readers had never experienced in legitimate fiction before. Certainly...

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There was always more than a touch of the picaresque in John Rechy’s novels. Those first ones especially, the ones by which most readers will remember him—City of Night (1963) and Numbers (1967)—were episodic romps through an erotic underworld many readers had never experienced in legitimate fiction before. Certainly the subject matter was arresting (the graphic depictions of homosexual encounters and the dubious terrain of male prostitution); but it really was the pace of if all that created the energy, that driving, obsessive pull of sex reflected in the rush of events, the parade of characters, the breathless narrative. That same energy is stamped all over Rechy’s new tale, another characteristic account of a young man’s journey in search of love and identity.

Every reviewer will surely be tempted to invoke Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and use the adjective raucous or rollicking in doing so. It is an understandable, even irresistible temptation, because The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens consciously harks back to that “rollicking” eighteenth century narrative of a bastard who takes to the road, fighting past the obstacles of a society stacked against him to emerge his own man. It is the perennial story of the outsider, the innocent eye through which the hypocrisy and affectation of contemporary society are registered and exposed. Like Fielding, Rechy embraces this traditional material with gusto and great invention. In this new version there is Lyle Clemens, the beautiful if troubled Texas youth, “who would grow up to become the Mystery Cowboy who appeared naked along Hollywood Boulevard.” But before that quintessentially Californian apotheosis, he must flee his mother, a bundle of mysteries and madness who schemes to turn her son into the cowboy father he never knew. He must flee the rapacious Texas fundamentalists who scheme to turn him into the Lord’s Cowboy, exploiting him to beef up their evangelical network. And he must flee the aging actress, Tara Worth, who schemes to turn him into her own fantasy cowboy and the vehicle of her Hollywood comeback. Lyle escapes them all, though not in a way readers might expect. As was Tom Jones, he has been the instrument for unmasking hypocrisy and unleashing love, and in the process he has found himself.

Rechy tells the tale with his patented raw honesty, the tawdry urban landscapes of Las Vegas and Los Angeles neatly skewered in language that is at once powerful and funny. It is this comic touch that seems new; targets are punctured and charlatans exposed with wonderful ferocity, but there is a hilarity to the book that comes down firmly on the side of life in spite of all its deception and double-dealing. It is as if Rechy hasn’t resurrected only Fielding’s elaborate plot but his ebullient good humor as well.

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