Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
This Day’s Death, John Rechy’s third novel, explores Chicano identity and gay sexuality. Unlike other novels by Rechy, however, This Day’s Death does not initially embody the two identities in one complex character. Instead, the novel shuttles—like its protagonist—between two identities (Chicano and gay) in two separate and yet...
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This Day’s Death, John Rechy’s third novel, explores Chicano identity and gay sexuality. Unlike other novels by Rechy, however, This Day’s Death does not initially embody the two identities in one complex character. Instead, the novel shuttles—like its protagonist—between two identities (Chicano and gay) in two separate and yet interdependent situations (El Paso and Los Angeles). Known for acknowledging the autobiographical origins of his fiction, Rechy skillfully illustrates how identities develop, sometimes demanding a person’s attention despite that person’s effort of will to ignore or deny a given identity.
West Texas and Los Angeles are two poles of identity for Rechy; the one is bound up with his Chicano upbringing and his family, the other with sexual freedom and discovery. As the novel opens, Jim Girard is not gay. He has a fiancée and a promising career in law. His arrest on a lewd conduct charge is a mistake. He keeps his ongoing prosecution on that charge a secret from his mother, who is ill in El Paso. In the course of the novel, Jim recalls his Chicano upbringing. Jim also acknowledges and acts on previously unacknowledged desires for other men. Thus, he gradually becomes gay and Chicano, an embodiment of a complex intersection of identities and an opportunity for Rechy to explore the intertwined roots of self.
Bound up with guilt, pretense, and hypochondria, Girard’s “terrible love” for his mother ties him to a childhood and a life that he recognizes as familiar but loathes. He knows that “she will brand each such day with memories he will carry like deep cuts forever.” Like other mother-son relationships in Rechy’s fiction, the relationship between Girard and his mother is an intense, stifling entanglement of need and rejection. Rechy utilizes the West Texas landscape (the wind, the sky, the desert) to impart a sense of loneliness and austerity that surrounds and amplifies Girard’s life with his mother. This love-hate relationship becomes the foundation of the novel, ironically suggesting that identity is inextricably connected to relationship rather than to the isolation that Girard maintains at the beginning of the novel.
This Day’s Death is an ironic coming out story in which circumstances collude to reveal a gay man to himself. Found guilty of the crime, and therefore unable to pursue his career, Jim returns to the park where he was arrested and finds himself accepting, even celebrating desires he never before acknowledged. On one level, the novel advocates social reform, depicting an innocent man convicted of a crime that is not really criminal. On another level, This Day’s Death is an analysis of the personal and bittersweet complex of experiences from which identities arise. This Day’s Death acknowledges identities and their complexity. To be Chicano and gay is a burdensome and miraculous combination. Girard’s relationship with his mother and whatever relationships he develops from his newly accepted desires will be tinged with joy and sadness, liberation and obligation. “The terrible love left empty” once his mother dies will be a necessary, affirming fact of having cared for his mother.