John (Francisco) Rechy Biography
John Rechy comments:
Nationality: American. Born: El Paso, Texas, 1934. Education: Texas Western College, El Paso, B.A.; New School for Social Research, New York. Military Service: Served in the United States Army. Career: Has taught creative writing at University of California, Occidental College, and University of Southern California, all Los Angeles. Lives in Los Angeles. Awards: Longview Foundation prize, 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, USA.
City of Night. New York, Grove Press, 1963; London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1964.
Numbers. New York, Grove Press, 1967.
This Day's Death. New York, Grove Press, and London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1970.
The Vampires. New York, Grove Press, 1971.
The Fourth Angel. New York, Viking Press, and London, W.H. Allen, 1972.
Rushes. New York, Grove Press, 1979.
Bodies and Souls. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1983; London, W.H. Allen, 1984.
Marilyn's Daughter. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1988.
The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. Boston, Little Brown, 1991.
Our Lady of Babylon. New York, Arcade, 1996.
The Coming of the Night. New York, Grove Press, 1999.
Momma As She Became—Not As She Was (produced New York, 1978).
Tigers Wild (produced New York, 1986).
The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary … of Three Days and Nights in the Sexual Underground. New York, Grove Press, 1977; London, W.H. Allen, 1978.
Because my first novel, City of Night, was greeted by two personally assaultive reviews, one in "The New York Review of Books," the other in "The New Republic," both of which shrilly attacked the novel's salient subject (homosexuality and male-hustling) while ignoring its careful literary form, much of my subsequent work is still frequently mis-viewed, especially since those two reviews have been anthologized. I consider myself a literary writer, one attentive to structure and style as essential to meaning. Employing a variety of forms, I've explored many subjects, ranging from male-hustling (City of Night, The Sexual Outlaw) to the power of legend over myth as epitomized by Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn's Daughter), to a day in the life of a Mexican-American woman (The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez) to a panoramic view of Los Angeles as a modern paradise of "lost angels" (Bodies and Souls). I wish that equal critical attention were paid to the literary aspects of my writing as, often—and years later—to the subject, only the subject, of my first novel.
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Author of eleven novels, several plays, and one work of nonfiction, John Rechy's reputation was made by the publication of his first novel, City of Night (1963), in which, as one critic has put it, his "world is the heir of Hawthorne's. His characters inhabit a moral universe whose codes are as rigorous as Calvin's and whose cops are the vigilantes of a new unmerciful Salem." Throughout his career he has focused on the transgressive, sexual in particular, but also social, political, and emotional. He has often employed quasi-allegorical structures to convey such transgression, especially in City of Night and Our Lady of Babylon (1996). Landscapes are colored by social, political, and moral disintegration, stirrings of uncompleted searches for social identity, and looming disaster. As his career has progressed, however, Rechy's artistry has matured and he has been able to embed his primary themes in a wider variety of styles and approaches, including a traditional Mexican-American novel of poverty, parodies of enlightenment literature, and self-referential camp.
In Rechy's first two novels, City of Night and Numbers (1967), his "youngmen" are the fallen angels of an eternally inaccessible paradise, and their lives are characterized by a search for the eros that will at last become agape. That the search is frenetic is scarcely surprising; it has all the desperate urgency that characterizes the role of the sensitive American—the anguish of exile within one's own country. Although in City of Night Rechy never quite succeeds in conveying Francis Thompson's added sense of "dreadful," it is plain that the implication is there. New York, from the first page, is a metaphor city, a fairy city—in a sense like the London of Robert Louis Stevenson—where anything might happen. That is not to say that Rechy's urban fantasy has the caliber of James Purdy's. It is more limited in its focus. Its world is a moral world turned upside down, where the Deus absconditus is Priapus. The quest for that god is a never-ending and insatiable one, one in which the tyrants of the old moral order have all the destructive vindictiveness of Diocletian against the Christians.
However, neither City of Night nor Numbers (in spite of the deliberate "allegorical" pretensions of the former) often rises above what seem to be the masturbatory fantasies of an aging queen. In his third novel, This Day's Death (1969), Rechy gets beyond the labored dualisms of his first two—a catalogue of well-equipped muscleboys on the one hand and a labored novelistic artifice to contain it on the other. This Day's Death does indeed suffer from a somewhat contrivedly concealed central event and a time scheme that is sometimes confusing and tedious. Its a la recherche de la virginite perdue, however, is convincing in a way that is true of neither of the earliest novels. Rechy's New Mexico, like John Steinbeck's Oklahoma, is a small-town world of poverty and pain, the anguish of growth and the desire to break out. His California is the nightmare inversion of that desire—a world where the law is a monster devouring the innocents who nonetheless have a Genet-like fascination with its devious iniquities. And together these worlds, as commentaries on one another, form a larger moral universe than any Rechy has created before.
It is disenchanting, then, to find that in The Vampires (1971), the novel that succeeds This Day's Death, he returns to the world of gothic fiction with an overlay of baroque Satanism. The Fourth Angel (1973) suffers less from this, being set once again in the Southwest. But if its teenage characters are more "real," their problems are too much the stereotypes of the late 1960s to remain interesting, and their presentation is overly laced with sentimentality—"and so, suddenly, they're gentle children playing gentle children's games." Rushes (1979) and Bodies and Souls (1983) focus on the similar themes with which Rechy was identified through his early career, with varying success.
In Marilyn's Daughter (1988), Rechy enters the bizarre world of southern California cults, indulging a continuing fascination with a fall from grace and generally vain attempts to regain it. The story of a young woman from Texas who believes herself to be the daughter of Marilyn Monroe, the book suffers from an overreliance on a parody of maps of the stars homes. However, it signals a shift in Rechy's work toward the exploration of women's illusions and sexual and social victimization, which he would then explore in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez (1991) and Our Lady of Babylon.
Despite the inclusion of several Mexican-American characters in his earlier work, The Miraculous Day is Rechy's most overtly Mexican-American fiction. It follows the tradition of the poor, victimized Hispanic woman in the Spanish-speaking ghetto who populates both the Northeast and the Southwest but whose story has been told only in 1990s literature. In it, Rechy no longer sets up the starkly dichotomous morality of alterity, his wont in early work, particularly in City of Night and Numbers. Amalia Gómez is a flawed individual within a flawed society, as delusive as many of her predecessors, mistake-prone, battered by circumstance and awaiting the confluence of illusion and miracle, either of which will satisfy her delusion. Rechy's maturing style allows a more nuanced prose than he had previously exhibited.
In Our Lady of Babylon, Rechy continues to explore the position of women as he did with young men in his early work, devolving an allegorical structure that removes his landscape far from the contemporary southwestern, urban world that has been his strength. Yet whereas Rechy's earlier use of allegory was fraught with earnestness, Our Lady is a cunningly camp parody of literary collective memory and the eighteenth-century eroticism of Les liaisons dangereuses and La Princesse de Clèves. His 1999 novel, The Coming of the Night, returns to many of the settings and themes of his earlier work, but reflects the much more mature, varied prose style that allows characters to exhibit flaws, an element often missing from his more allegorical early work about young men. It also finds a writer at the height of his powers experimenting with a continued parody of memory and desire in a camp, self-referential manner.
Because of his subject matter, Rechy has attracted most review and criticism from gay-oriented publications. Owing to the current development of the politics of inclusion, publication of the Mexican-American-themed Amalia Gómez, and the urging of Chicano critic Juan Bruce-Novoa, Rechy (whose full name is John Francisco Rechy-Flores) has recently attracted the attention of Chicano critics and bibliographers.
D. D. C. Chambers,
updated by Harold Augenbraum
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