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The Miraculous Genre of John Rechy

2 December 2013

…“City of Night,” which turns 50 this year, chronicles the journey of a young Mexican-American from the border town of El Paso into the gay underworld of Times Square, Hollywood Boulevard and the French Quarter of New Orleans during the 1950s. As the book’s jacket boldly announced, “This is a novel about America.”

(Greg Barrios, “A First Gay Novel, a Poor Latino Boyhoodand the Confluence” New York Times, 1 December 2013)

With the American tendency to pigeon-hole authors by ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, etc., writers who span one or two categories often are dismissed by academics, perhaps for the simple reason that they don’t fit easily into a syllabus. John Rechy for one.

Rechy’s 2008 memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman details his early attempts to “pass” as Anglo in 1950s El Paso. The son of a elderly, alcoholic Scots-Mexican composer (a favorite of Porfirio Diaz) who had come down in the world after fleeing Mexico during the Revolution and his much younger, poorly educated second wife, Rechy writes of the “shame” not only of a poverty-stricken and violent home life, but of the double-life he felt forced to lead.

Although he would blossom as something of an athlete as a teenager (and, like many gay men of his generation, would be “pumped” as an adult), he was the coddled “baby” of the family. His mother — uneducated as she was — understanding early on that young Juan was “different”, she encouraged him to pursue an education in the hope that it might at least allow him a chance for a life outside the relentlessly “macho” atmosphere of the borderlands ghettos. Already possessing a suitably Anglo family name, — his given name Juan having become “John” apparently through the whimsy of a grade school teacher — he  attended the “white” high school in the segregated 50s, by claiming his home address was one picked at random in a “white” neighborhood… and having classmates pick him up and drop him off at his fictitious home. Obviously, Rechy became adept at dreaming up excuses for not inviting friends in. In short, he learned at at early age how to live a double-life, and to keep his real identity in the closet when he needed to. He rather dramatically came out… as Mexican… only in college when he blew up at a friend’s openly racist mother who had invited him to visit at an exclusive resort.

Subterfuge and a denial of identity no longer working, and a gay identity being one not rechy_possible in the El Paso of the late 50s, Rechy would  take to the road (his excuse being a possible writers’ workshop in New York) where he freely accepted his other identity as a gay man, a writer, and a hustler. Details of his working life made it into his first novel,  City of Night.  Given its subject matter, which was shocking at the time of its first publication in 1963, Rechy was pegged as a “gay writer” (although the sub-genre of GLBT Fiction didn’t exist at the time).

While I am not a believer in the theory that one needs to know anything abut an author’s biography in order to enjoy the work, and although Rechy didn’t deal with specifically Mexican-American themes until his 1991 The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, like “Miraculous Day”, City of Night should be on Chicano/Latino reading lists.

I happened not to have read City of Night until about ten years ago while living in Mexico City. It was one I had heard of, and had read other novels by Rechy (including “Miraculous Day”), so at least recognized the name. I happened on a first paperback edition for five pesos one afternoon being sold by a miscellaneous second-hand “stuff” vendor on calle Hidalgo. Not knowing anything about the author’s life other than he was a writer of gay fiction, but living in Mexico, what I read called to mind a work of Mexican literature.. another “shocking” novel about the gay “underworld”… Luis Zapata’s 1978 Adonis García: El vampiro de la colonia Roma… also about a male prostitute,  and his peregrinations through the country, though Adonis’ country being Mexico.

Zapata’s novel was published in English (although now out of print) as “Adonis Garcia: a picaresque novel”. While there are works that could be called “picaresques” in English — “the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society” (as Wikipedia puts it). But, in English, “picaresques” are comical or satirical novels. While there is some comedy in City of Night and Adonis Garcia is often very funny, both are rather sad books about social outcasts forced to come to terms with their place (or non-place) in the world, and their coming to self-awareness … a theme with a long tradition in Spanish-language letters. “City of Night” is in a long tradition of such novels in Spanish (and Latin American) letters, dating back to the anonymous 1540s proto-novel Lazarillo de Tormes. Adonis, the protaganist of Zapata’s novel, like Rechy’s “Youngman” are Lazarillos. That is, although City of Night was written in English, it is a Hispanic novel, and the author should, on that point, also be considered a Latino author.

There are mentions of a home in El Paso, Youngman’s brown skin, and a amusing (and very well done) look at racial stereotyping (Youngman is kept for a time by a professor who thinks he is “civilizing” a dumb Mexican kid… until Youngman makes the mistake of mentioning his own higher education). While not overt, Youngman’s Mexicanidad is essential to City of Night. The need to “escape” and to present a double-identity to the outside world (both sexual and ethnic) gives meaning to what might otherwise have been seen as simply a titillating “road trip” (from Texas to New York, to California, to New Orleans).

Rechy’s place as pioneer in GLBT letters is secure. And, while even the most conservative of Chicano/Latino academics have — if grudgingly — given a pass to “The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez” to their own canons, it is only now, when Rechy is an octogenarian that his first (and, I think, finest) work is being recognized.

john-rechy-talkingFor the gay Chicano writer Benjamin Alire Sáenz, winner of this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award and a teacher in the creative writing department at the University of Texas at El Paso, Mr. Rechy’s novel is “without a doubt one of the finest literary works ever written.”

“It saddens me to think that it is rarely taught and mentioned in the Latino literary canon, which only goes to show how homophobic the literary establishment has been,” Mr. Sáenz said. ”What he taught me is this: to banish all fear when I sit down to write.”

What Rechy wrote was more than a Latino novel, or a gay novel, or an American novel… he wrote something much more important… as Benjamin Alire Sáenz said, “one of the finest literary works ever written.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. DonAlbertoDoyle permalink
    3 December 2013 3:06 pm

    While you don’t quite say so, you seem to imply that City of Night enjoys a unique position in being canonical both to Latin and gay genres at the same time. There are certainly other great works at that nexus, the most immediately obvious being Puig’s Beso de La Mujere Arana.

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