JANUARY 17, 2015
The following is a feature article from the most recent edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal: Fall 2014. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
JOHN RECHY is an American writer best known for his novels, starting with the groundbreaking City of Night (1963). He is the recipient of PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, The Publishing Triangle’s William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, and The Luis Leal Award for distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature — he is known as a pioneer of LGBT literature and Chicano/Latino literature. Based in Los Angeles, Rechy taught for many years at USC. He spoke to John-Manuel Andriote and Tom Lutz about his long and distinguished career.
JOHN-MANUEL ANDRIOTE: You mention in your introduction to the 1984 edition of City of Night that your early works included many poems. Something I have admired about your writing is its poetic quality — words chosen both for connotation and denotation, spare yet voluptuous language, cadence. Have you continued to write poetry throughout your career? Have you used poetry as a way to hone your writing? Have you published your poetry?
JOHN RECHY: In my teen years, I did write some poetry (in addition to the novels I was writing). The poems were often in rhymed pentameter. I liked epic subjects: “The Crazy Fall of Man” was one, in which, at the end, Judgment Day, outraged people come to judge God, not the other way around; the last person is Christ, so powerfully accusing God that He — God — throws himself into hell, like this: “And raising his mighty hand in an act of contrition, God said, ‘Forgive, forgive, forgive,’ and flung Himself headlong into the bottomless pit of hell.”
I wrote other poems, too, short ones. So, yes, in my prose I often write in pentameter, carefully. In all my books, I will very often add a word or subtract a word, or choose one with fewer or more syllables to fulfill the intended rhythm. I often adjust the prose to prop up action; e.g., during the Mardi Gras section in City of Night. In that passage, I chose active verbs, at times colliding to convey the franticness. I did conceive of some passages as “poetry.” So, yes, I have “used poetry as a way to hone [my] writing.” Even when I have chosen plainer prose to fit the narrative of a book (The Coming of the Night throughout), I will adjust a passage with added syllables (say) to fulfill a rhythmic requirement. Too, I will often banish adjectives of color to create a sense of psychological and/or physical darkness. I would say that my attention to rhythm has come partly from poetry, my own and what I’ve read; for example, John Milton and Alexander Pope — really — and the metaphysical poets like James Thomson: all are influences.
TOM LUTZ: Numbers, your second novel, seems to me to be the most penetrating analysis of narcissism ever written. Did you think of it as a book about narcissism? Or is that not the right term?
Yes, about narcissism, and as part of that the death of youth — which is what Johnny Rio is futilely fighting, although he declares his firm knowledge that he will never age, and that, of course, is impossible. As part of the theme of narcissism, Johnny Rio drives up to the observatory periodically to look at himself in the mirror, especially after some kind of “triumph” in the park. There is one time, however, when he does not see what he expects; he sees another image of himself, a somewhat distorted image that frightens him — evoking The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Another aspect of the same: Johnny encounters a man. (I believe he’s driving a convertible, or an identifiable car.) That man recurs, and each time he appears he seems younger to Johnny.
Toward the end of the book, the man has become very attractive and young; and Johnny protests: “Why are you following me?” The man answers: “I thought you were following me.” … Also, about halfway into the book, “the park” becomes “the Park,” a player in the novel, pulling Johnny into its “lower depths” (literally; Johnny moves into the lower trails and “tree caverns” of the Park). Of course, there is “the Heavenly Sniper” that Johnny in the end futilely aims a “rifle” at (imitating it with his cocked hand) and shoots. Too, there is the title: gay “numbers,” biblical numbers (counted), and, essentially, “numb-ers” — the attempt to “numb.”
That so much of this was not even glimpsed when it appeared distressed me; it was viewed as a “sex book.” Get this: the German edition was sold along with a card the buyer had to sign, declaring that he (or she, I suppose) knew what the book was about and would not make it available to anyone else without that warning.
But now a word about narcissism in general. It has a very bad reputation: It is almost a required adjective in media descriptions of anyone who has committed a horrifying act. Not fair. There is bad narcissism (that needs no explication) and good narcissism. The latter is good when it allows someone to feel so good about — yes, and “love” —him/herself that he is not compromised by another’s self-confident achievements. A good narcissist can abandon the onerous demand for “humility.” “Humility” isn’t grand, it’s depleting. I find it’s harrowing that upon being granted a wonderful honor (e.g., a literary award, an Academy Award, and upon being elected Pope or President, et cetera) the recipient claims — must claim — that he/she is “humbled.” No honor should humble one. It should elevate both the recipient and the giver, a proud, creative synergy. What is more arrogant than a false posture of humility. (A terrible confusion occurs when narcissism is mistaken for the real horror of megalomania, very different.)
J -MA: I don’t know when the word “gay” was first used, as noun and adjective, but I expect City of Night was one of the first books in which it was used (if not the first). Was “gay” an underground code word back in the late ’50s, the period of City of Night? Was it part of the street language?
Fine questions, but I don’t know the specifics of the word. I do believe that word was used up into the 19th century (or so) in connection with “loose women,” especially actresses (today, ridiculously: “female actors,” a phrase I detest). I do believe the word became widely used around the ’50s, but earlier more as the word of the initiated. I resisted the word; I agreed with C. Isherwood, who said the noun “gays” made us sound like “bliss ninnies.” I’ve felt that gay men — yes, the men — often choose and propound terrible words to designate ourselves. The worst one so far is “queer” — and I shall never use it other than in reference to it. I have, only somewhat jokingly, suggested we call ourselves “Trojans.”
TL: You once said This Day’s Death was your least favorite of all your books — do you still feel that way?
This is what happened — from its inception, in my opinion, the book went wrong. The main reason, I believe, is that at the time I was writing it I was facing an actual trial (the one Jim Girard is involved in); I had been arrested the way Jim Girard is, in Griffith Park. I was actually faced with a possible five-year prison sentence, the same as Jim Girard: the vice cops, the court, the lawyers, the judge, the unbelievable moving of the trial into the sex arena of Griffith Park so that the judge could “see for himself ” — incredible as all that sounds today. I used the actual transcript of the trial, but I had to alter it because the actual account makes little sense. … Then, too, my mother was going through a period of undiagnosable illness. I used those facts and created Mrs. Girard, who is not at all my mother, just another character in my mother’s situations. The New York Times review appeared; my mother had just died. The review was odious. The reviewer had not read the book, and it was obvious because he wrote: “Why Jim Girard goes to the park is never explained” — whereas, in the actual book I had written: “And why did Jim Girard go to the park that day?” — a technique I often use to ask questions the reader may have. And I go on, in the book, to answer that in detail. I wrote a letter of protest, bringing up that point; it was published — and I believe that was when my enduring battle with The New York Times began, and continues. …
Recently, while receiving some honors at UC Merced and UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, I discovered that several astute professors admired This Day’s Death. A woman who is writing her dissertation on my work — Beth Hernandez-Jason at Merced — praised that book to me and objected strongly when I told her I had asked that it not be kept in print. So did others. I still don’t think it is “a good book,” but I have deferred and allowed Grove to keep it in print.
J-MA: You explored themes in City of Night that are, to put it mildly, extraordinarily “mature” for a young man of 32, as you were at the time of the book’s publication. For example, you were powerfully tuned into loneliness — and you saw, and described, loneliness as the driving force behind so much of what we do to obtain sex and connection with others. Ultimately, toward the redemptive moment of Ash Wednesday, you write, “My God but I’m lonely.” It seems, in that admission, that our narrator has found his salvation, at least its possibility. Please describe your relationship to loneliness as a young man and how City of Night — like the words of Jeremy Adams — offers “a hint of a kind of balm on the loneliness … a possible substitute for salvation”?
To write about “the gay world” you cannot avoid the subject of loneliness. As “politically incorrect” as this may be, loneliness is endemic — paradoxically most often in popular gay bars and dance places — a sense, in the dancing, of franticness to connect. Why this? Because, no matter how much progress has occurred — and that is a lot — we gay people will always be born into “the hostile camp” — that is, we are born out of heterosexuality and live — still — with the necessity to “masquerade” (drag, leather?). The emphasis on youth and beauty — both fleeting — are further guarantors of loneliness. Gay elders will often disappear, alone. (Or, forgive me, they may go to Palm Springs.) In several of my books, and in my life, I’ve detected, in gay gatherings, a kind of mirthless laughter that rises above the noise: a laughter devoid of humor, a laughter that seems to choke before it’s ended. As great as the ability to marry is to our collective psyche — and it is great — I doubt that marriage will become widespread on our horizon.
TL: There is a recurring tattoo — a naked Christ — a tattoo that shows up in a few of the books. Was that a real person’s tattoo? What are we to make of its conflation of the sacred and the profane?
When you use “real people” as characters, there may come a time when the real person and the character become one; I sometimes can’t remember what I put into a book and what “really happened.” Actually, I don’t care — I think that’s good. Narrative assumes its own life, and all “nonfiction” is finally “a lie.” So: There was a kid — I think he was eight then — who lived in the projects, a sad little boy. I’ve written about him many times as “Manny.” He was in and out of detention home and finally in and out of prison, where he hanged himself. I wrote about him for The Texas Observer and there followed an investigation as to what was his cause of death. (That is used in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez ; he appears in The Fourth Angel , and he appears in my play Tigers Wild and in Bodies and Souls .) That’s all background. I believe that he did have a tattoo of Christ, but I don’t think Christ was naked. That is one connection to a “naked Christ.” More, though: I have always been fascinated by the sexual imagery in Catholic churches and religious art, especially depicting Christ. In representations of his crucifixion he is incredibly beautiful, his body is lithely muscular, perfect, and the loincloth covers him just above the pubic area. It is that figure that congregants are expected to kneel and “adore.” That is the figure that nuns “marry” before. … And yet people are aghast to think of Jesus as a sexual figure. The sex scene between Jesus and Judas in Our Lady of Babylon — while Mary Magdalene looks on after having taken part with them — is one of my favorites, although, yes, it was difficult to write.
To me, psychological disturbances emerge out of the confusion with that naked figure, tortured, and the forbidding of sexuality. …
I have used those aspects as commentaries in my work; I have used it to depict the horror that can come out of it (an actual crucifixion in Rushes and an actual melding of religion and rape in The Coming of the Night ). I have also used it for very broad satire, especially in The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens — one of my most satirical. Lyle is trapped into “performing” as “The Lord’s Cowboy” before a congregation of hysterical “Born-Agains” — and two televangelists modeled after the notorious duo Sister Jan and Paul. In my book, Lyle, on stage, evokes what an older woman, a sexy woman, taught him about intercourse, and he adapts those moves into his “slain in the spirit” dance — really, gyrating sexually, while the congregation screams: “Come, O Lord, come.” In the same book I use the reactionary Supreme Court judges as nasty minor characters; e.g., “Sandra May O’Connell” is a fluffer for porn movies made by “The Renquists of Encino.” In that book, I satirize beauty contests, the Academy Awards, Angelyne, Hugh Hefner’s mansion (where a peacock runs amok); a main character is “Mr. Fielding.” I dislike religion very much, Christianity in particular (especially Catholicism, which is what I was born into), and find it mean and dangerous — and hypocritical about sex. Those aspects, I intertwine into many of my books.
J-MA: And yet there is an obvious and profound longing for God on the part of some of your characters — perhaps the ultimate “balm on the loneliness” — and you deftly use religious words and imagery (purgatorial purple dawn; resurrective sleep; tenebrous). I haven’t seen other reviewers/interviewers focus on that, yet to me (who grew up Catholic) it’s plain as day. In our 2003 interview, you mentioned that you don’t allow your writing students to bring “mysticism” into their work, and that you don’t consider yourself religious, as you just said. But I actually find City of Night to be a powerfully spiritual book. We might call it “incarnational” because it’s through the carnality of sex that it seems we find either the possibility of salvation ( Jeremy Adams, “Knowing it doesn’t keep me from being part of it”) or damnation (Neil, the leather man in San Francisco, contemptuous of “the weakness” of compassion). Please describe your exploration of the “substitutes for salvation,” and the spiritual struggle for “the absence of loneliness” ( Jeremy)?
I do disdain all religions, especially Catholicism because I was born into it. Religions, Christian religions, at any rate, do offer redemption, salvation, et cetera — that is at the core of much of it: salvation. But when you finally encounter the hypocrisy and cruelty embedded in every one of those religions, you’re left with a terrible emptiness — no “salvation.” We look for substitutes: often, yes, in sex, lots of sex. Now I can see how intelligent readers might find a sense of spirituality in my writing. I would say, however, it is, more, the tenacious dregs of early religious attitudes. I use Catholic imagery constantly, and that might lead to a deduction of spirituality. The imagery in Catholic art, in its churches, is erotic and — oh, yes — very often powerfully, overtly sexual — the Sistine paintings at times seem to depict orgies. And a lot of sadomasochism, a lot. Yes, and look at the image of Christ crucified in altars all over the world. What a huge impact that has to have: a beautiful man, a muscular body, almost naked, only a tantalizing covering — and a kneeling audience of priests and congregants.
One clarification. About your reference that in my writing workshops I don’t allow my students to bring “mysticism” into their work: I don’t interfere with my students’ attitudes about anything, including mysticism. Of course they do know my view of such. The only thing I don’t allow is bad writing.
When I was in the Army (the 101st Airborne Infantry Division) in Germany, I was sent, along with many other soldiers, to teach, for 12 weeks, servicemen who had not achieved at least a ranking in third grade. That’s where my time “teaching” began, then at UCLA, USC, and my private workshop. I don’t consider myself a “writing teacher” but a “guide,” from experience: warn about obstacles, identify them, find ways to overcome them. I also emphasize how damaging the fixed clichés about writing are, yet they endure from “writing class” to “writing class”: 1. Show don’t tell. Nonsense; writing includes dramatizing (“showing”) and exposition (“telling”). We speak about “story telling,” never “story showing.” 2. Have a sympathetic character to relate to. More nonsense. Some of the most memorable characters in literature are unsympathetic. What they must be is fascinating: e.g., Catherine and Heathcliff, et al. 3. Write about what you know. Even more nonsense. That “rule” would decimate literature, from Homer to Nabokov, and myriad others. The only rule I uphold is: there are no rules — write about whatever you want to write about. Also: I do not adhere to the tired exhortation that a writer must never protest reviews, et cetera. I tell my workshop writers always to protest dumb reviewers. I do myself — and write thank-yous to perceptive reviewers.
TL: To return briefly to the question of religion — in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez you are completely, it seems to me, sympathetic to the force of religious belief in a person’s life, the utility, and even the beauty of it.
That is very true, yes. But such a view belongs to my character, Amalia. I am very empathetic to the beliefs that allow human beings to exist often through horrible lives. My mother was deeply religious, and it got her through painful times. Because of that, I often prayed with her, the rosary, et cetera. I would never have done anything to compromise that. Too, looked at objectively, the Catholic Mass is very beautiful, High Mass. In a church that only Technicolor could do justice to; the statues of saints, Mary, and Jesus all look like movie stars. The ritualized services, the changing, the spraying of scented ashes — that provides great theater, of course. It wasn’t until I could see those rituals as such that I could tolerate them. Yes, beautiful drama at the core of which is — alas — suffering and repression and cruel judgments.
J-MA: It’s clear that even the young narrator — can we say John Rechy? — was moving through his own narcissism toward a rebellion (against those who make outcasts of homosexuals?) of a more lasting, solid nature not based on youth. How would you describe your lifelong rebellion — as a man and as a writer?
Truly, I’ve never thought of myself as a rebel. This may sound naive, but I did not expect that City of Night would create the kind of stir that it did. It surprised me. When I read some of the reactions (some vicious, the first ones), I decided to keep out of the fray. I was in El Paso at the time and a famous doctor in New York invited me to visit him and go to Tanglewood for the American premiere of Britten’s War Requiem. I went, and then I went with him to some of the Caribbean islands — first Puerto Rico, then St. Thomas, et cetera — back to New York, in Riverdale, I kept very private. Even a greater fuss (especially among some “gay” groups) occurred with The Sexual Outlaw. Books were returned, sold under the counter. Again, although The Sexual Outlaw is definitely “political,” to me it was a literary work that, yes, expressed outrage. Did that make me a rebel? I was invited to do a reading from it in San Francisco, with Allen Ginsberg, and a few other poets. Ginsberg went on and on — it was clearly his audience. Then I came on. Now, remember that at the time (’70s) gay people were objecting to sensationalist depictions of our lives — they preferred a much more placid view. (And tacitly but powerfully forbidden was to expose our growing emphasis on sexuality.) For the reading, I dressed overtly sexual — jeans, cowboy boots, a form-fitting denim shirt, and that caused anger in the audience. When I read, and the word “stud” recurred, a whole contingent of gay men stood up and laughed loudly (that forced, ugly laughter), and stomped out. I continued to read, and then a second contingent stood up, roaring with laughter, and stomped off. I didn’t know exactly why.
The next day at the hotel, a reporter came to interview me about the demonstration — an African-American queen was the interviewer, and we got along splendidly, ordering breakfast in the room. “She” then praised me in her talk, and chastised those who walked out. Did that make me rebellious? I didn’t feel so. A few years later, again in San Francisco, I did a reading with Edward Albee. I received two standing ovations, gay men and wonderful lesbians; and Mr. Albee was booed. …
I suppose, though, that by living my life as I chose to — that that lack of convention might suggest some kind of rebellion, but I didn’t see it that way. It didn’t seem even slightly outrageous to me to teach at UCLA extension in the evening, and after class go out on Santa Monica Boulevard to hustle, though one night, after midnight, I was standing without a shirt on a corner and a car drove by, circled the block, and came back, and the young driver (who looked like a student) lowered his window and called out: “Good evening, Professor Rechy. Out for an evening stroll?” The point is that I saw/see no difference between my development as a writer and my development as a man. I do hope that both gained from new experiences, newer views. I don’t KNOW. …
TL: The reader who only knows you from your biggest books might not know what a gifted comic novelist you are. The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens is the most obvious example; Our Lady of Babylon is quite comic as well. How do you see your own relation to comedy as a mode?
I’m startled that that aspect of my work has not been viewed. Every one of my books, without exception, has passages that I conceived of as “hilarious.” Most of those are also satirical. Miss Destiny’s party that gets out of hand — “Throw his pants over the transom, Darling Dolly Dane,” acted out, would qualify as madcap. …
I delighted in conceiving of the mysteries of creation being discussed by two polite ladies in a garden, in Our Lady of Babylon. I imitated the tone of early English pornographic novels in the book within a book. The Pope is quite hilarious, I think, and the descriptions: “her impudent breasts.” (Ermenegildo, the peacock, is named after my favorite designer, Ermenegildo Zegna. …) Of course, the intention of the book finally is not only satirical (about God’s monstrous judgment on Eve), but serious in its implications: God conniving to blame women for the worst debacles in history, the Trojan War, which I claim is waged to keep secret the fact that Paris, the epitome of manly beauty, is actually “very small hung.” This is a favorite book of mine, in which, yes, I tried melding high comedy with high serious drama.
TL: When I had a chance to interview you seven or eight years ago, for an audience in Palm Desert, I prepared by rereading or reading all of your works, except for one — The Vampires — because it simply hadn’t arrived in time. Just in case we might want to refer to a particular passage, I brought all of the books onstage with me, and had them piled on the table between us. As we got started, I said — okay, as you see, I have all your books here, in case we want to check something — and you said, without missing a beat, “Almost all!” That novel is a good example of the way humor infuses your work: it is a hilarious, almost James Bond–like carnival of villainy.
Thank you. Yes, I conceived of that novel as written in “comic-book style” — everything exaggerated. Images in Technicolor. Exclamatory dialogue — and, yes, full melodrama: suicide, murder, incest — even voodoo. It is indeed very funny, too, it’s very influenced by movie serials of my childhood: Flash Gordon, et cetera.
J-MA: You write of ghosts in City of Night. After phoning a number of churches on Ash Wednesday morning, you say:
The symbolic death of the soul […], not of the body — it’s that which creates ghosts, and in those moments I felt myself becoming a ghost, drained of all that makes this journey to achieve some kind of salvation bearable under the universal sentence of death.
You write earlier, in visiting Chicago: “I pursued those streets as if hunting ghosts.” This has something to do with Neil, and an effort to reclaim the compassion and pity that had been underscored by Neil’s willful rejection of those qualities in himself. Do the “ghosts” represent remembered image
My Catholic background was haunted with ghosts and angels, which, you are right, recur. You are very right about the connection to Neil, and the “epiphany” in Chicago’s skid row. Yes, the narrator wants to regain his view of compassion and caring as opposed to Neil’s courting of pain and humiliation. But I wanted to indicate that Neil’s desire for pain and humiliation had its root in himself having been tortured. In Chicago, the narrator is assaulted by the pain of life itself, without any courtship. The frantic calls the narrator makes, after the frenzy of Mardi Gras, are simply a return to what falsely nurtured him in his youth; really, just wanting to connect with someone from another time — the priests who offered “salvation” — but it is not found. A central image of “innocence” is the reference to “white sheets,” which occurs in the opening of the book and in the ending. … Ghosts? I do think we live with them. I believe that death creates “absences.” An absent person continues to exist, the way someone who is away continues to exist. Death exists only for the living, right? — and so do ghosts.
TL: One of my favorite novels has always been The Fourth Angel — I think in part because of the great, sweet innocence of those characters. And that trio, I feel, shows up in your work elsewhere, as in Bodies and Souls, for instance — are they based on real-life models, or some kind of Jungian, archetypal force you feel that arrangement has, or neither, or both?
In The Fourth Angel, I used actual experiences as an adult and converted them into the experiences that the four “angels” have. All of their antecedents are adults “in real life.” My mother, like Jerry’s, had just died, and I didn’t think I would be able to cope. I met some people (adults, in their 20s) who became my “friends.” They had unlimited supplies of drugs — psychedelic (acid, mescaline), as well as cocaine. I needed escape. I took the drugs and it was beautiful, the first times — and it became hellish later. That is what Jerry is going through, and his friends are Shell and Cob — based on the people with the drugs. Manny is the only one whose antecedent is an actual teenager, the kid I’ve written about. The point, I suppose, is this: that we became like children, desperate — and so I wrote about children.
J-MA: Let’s continue with the image of “angels” — used obviously in that book, as well as throughout City of Night and in your other books. Rather than the “ghosts” of our own lost innocence, do the angels represent others, external to ourselves, who become either the instruments of grace and salvation — or damnation?
Good connections, yes; and I have used angels both as demonic figures (Mardi Gras) and punishers — that is, the frightening angel that “freezes” Miss Destiny: “What will never happen, has not happened, and hope is an end within itself.” (I’m quoting from memory.) Yet the woman at the Delta Airlines ticket office at the end is also suggested as an angel. (Indeed, I saw her as that, myself; and I asked her name and she said she was “Miss Wingfield,” a name so obviously benignly angelic that I deleted it from the novel itself in that passage.)
TL: I’ve always thought the first page of City of Night has a very different sound than the rest of that book, and the rest of your work (ellipses in original):
Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night stretching gaudily from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard — jukebox-winking, rock-n-roll-moaning: America at night fusing its darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.
Remember Pershing Square and the apathetic palmtrees. Central Park and the frantic shadows. Movie theaters in the angry morning-hours. And wounded Chicago streets. … Horrormovie courtyards in the French Quarter — tawdry Mardi Gras floats with clowns tossing out glass beads, passing dumbly like life itself. … Remember rock-n-roll sexmusic blasting from jukeboxes leering obscenely, blinking manycolored along the streets of America strung like a cheap necklace from 42nd Street to Market Street, San Francisco. …
To me this almost sounds like you are feeling the influence of the Beat writers, engaging in their kind of Olympian elegy, with the Dos Passos conjunctions that they adopted, and the Ginsberg/Kerouac long line — all of which, as soon as you get personal, as soon as you mention El Paso, in fact, disappears, and your own style kicks in. Am I making that up, some kind of anxiety of influence?
I do see what you mean, of course. That was not intentional. I had not read Kerouac at the time I wrote that, and I was not in that group of writers. The opening chapter of City of Night was the last one written. Or, if not the very last, one of the very last. (I forget.) That opening passage was originally about 12 pages. I intended a kind of “flash-forward.” That long, long version was cumbersome, however, and I kept honing it more and more — eight pages, then six, then three — and finally that one page. I’m not entirely sure, but I do believe that virtually every sentence was originally a paragraph. … As a teenager I did read Dos Passos’s U.S.A. and was quite influenced by it, especially in The Sexual Outlaw. …
TL: Ah! So what I was seeing there, maybe, was not a relation to Kerouac, but the influence of Dos Passos on you both.
I hadn’t thought of Dos Passos in reference to Kerouac. I do, though, believe that Dos Passos’s U.S.A. is much more consciously — and successfully — structured than anything Kerouac wrote. Hemingway and Henry Miller are often mentioned by writers of the time (1950s, 1960s); I was never consciously influenced by Hemingway — I never admired him all that much. Henry Miller I didn’t admire at all. (When I was about 16 and working in the “call office” of a large laundry, a wiry little man and his wiry wife came in often and found me reading between “calls.” They invited me to dinner, and I went. The wife went to bed after dinner, and the little man told me he had a smuggled (at the time) copy of Tropic of Cancer . He brought it out, asked me to sit on a comfortable chair, and he sat on the footstool and began reading a graphic sex scene from it. I realized he was trying to arouse me, but it actually turned me off. (I left right away.) The reason it turned me off so was that the participants in the sex passage were dirty and not very attractive. For me, a good sex scene has to have attractive people, or at least one.
About the “Beats,” an aside: I was in El Paso, in my mother’s home in the projects — where I went to finish, and write most of, City of Night . Late night, very late, maybe about 3:00 a.m. the phone jarred me out of sleep. I answered, somewhat annoyed. The excited voice announced itself, a name I couldn’t place, and told me hurriedly that he was with a group driving in a bus about the country. He invited me, exuberantly, to come on out and join the group. I was annoyed and said something like, “You’re crazy, you woke me, don’t call me again.” You guessed it, I’m sure; it was Ken Kesey and the magic bus crew.
I did meet Ginsberg later and visited him in Ferlinghetti’s apartment. I regretted the visit, though, because I really wanted to converse with him about writing, but he kept insisting that I take my clothes off. Then the phone rang and it was Orlovsky, who then asked to speak to me when Ginsberg told him I was there. Mr. Orlovsky wanted to know how many pounds I could press.
J-MA: You seem sympathetic — compassionate — toward the drag queens, yet you are derisive toward Neil and the leather world. Is this because the drag queen, in taking on the female persona, is perhaps embracing the compassion and tenderness that are assumed to go with being female? While the leather is an intentional masking/rejection of compassion and vulnerability?
I have always admired drag queens. They are, to me, the advance guard of our liberation. The courage it took/takes to confront the world with an attitude that implies “fuck you” (e.g., Chi-Chi) to all convention — that is brave. Yes, I felt lots of compassion — no, much more than that — admiration for the queens I wrote about, not least Miss Destiny.
Obviously — I hope — I’m not talking about “leather” as in leather jackets that gay people use (including myself; I still have my classic “motorcycle jacket” intact); nor am I talking about the “costume” in bars. I am talking about the hard-core “leather world” that is saliently defined as S&M, and that I find lamentable — not in judgment, not at all, but simply as a manifestation of “gay self-hatred” (a subject very controversial that, indeed, results in various forms of anger). I point out that S&M is sadomasochism, and that it is a charade of the oppression against us: the “sado” being the “straight-playing master” and the masochist playing the gay supplicant. I am not talking from a distance about this. I had experience in the area, as I’ve written about in City of Night and elsewhere — so I do know about the “leather faction” personally. Years ago in Los Angeles there was a “gay auction” organized by Fred Halsted, who was my friend. The auction featured crawling “slaves,” leashed, bid on by “masters.” It was raided by the uniformed cops, and I thought that was the perfect metaphor: real S&M aimed at gay S&M, in a kind of mimetic performance of actual “S&M.” My views of this are spelled out in The Sexual Outlaw, incidentally. The raid presented this graphic depiction: gay “masters” and “gay” slaves were handcuffed together and carried away by the not too unsimilarly uniformed cops, the real terrible “masters.”
And of course earlier I talked about my admiration for the courage, and endurability, of “queens.”
TL: You are now always listed in any accounting of important Los Angeles writers, and in any list of important Chicano literary figures. Can you talk a little bit about those monikers, those traditions? You have focused on Los Angeles, not just incidentally, in the way that Pershing Square or Griffith Park are settings, but quite consciously, in Marilyn’s Daughter, Bodies and Souls, Lyle Clemens, and The Coming of the Night, for instance. How do you see yourself in the tradition of LA writing? And when the canon of Chicano literature was first being formed in the 1970s — maybe even in the 1980s? — you were not mentioned in those lists as often, the way you always are now. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Chicanismo, your identification with the movimiento, to Chicano/a Literature as a category?
My hope, my profound hope, is that I will be designated as a writer, an author, without the ethnic or sexual qualifier, which are, of course, legitimate and major in my life, but, finally, not in my literature. … Okay, that’s my hope.
About LA literature: I think it’s relevant to say that I love Los Angeles, a profound city, yes. I like to think that it’s where God — if you believe the story — exiled the rebellious angels, and that accounts for its promiscuous “spirituality” and sensuality. It’s a city in glorious Technicolor. I do think that may account for some of what is thought of as “LA literature.” It certainly does in my own work, maybe especially in Bodies and Souls. Still, I don’t really care about characterizing literature into strict genres. … I suppose a negative element is the cliché that “LA writers” are often disdained by the self-appointed Sages of the East. A cliché? Yes. True? Yes. I do think there’s a lot of envy “Back East” for our daring denizens, and, yes, thinking about it — LA literature might be explored for its … I hate the word, but here it goes … for its recurrent “edginess.” (Again: the place of exiled angels, “lost angels,” “rebellious angels”?)
Now about Chicano literature: There was a time quite early when, as you point out, emerging “Chicano” groups left me out entirely, not even mentioned. Then, gradually, I started appearing, a bit like a ghost on the fringes. Now, thanks to some powerful academic and literary groups, I’ve been put at the chronological forefront of “Chicano” literature, since, yes, I was writing about “Mexican Americans” — being one myself, my mother Mexican, my father Scottish — back in the ’50s — for The Nation, The Texas Observer. I was doing translations of Mexican writers into English for Evergreen Review, Texas Quarterly; the writers I translated are: Elena Poniatowska, Emilio Carballido, Ricardo Garibay. … I’m fond of saying now that it was more difficult for me to “come out” as a “Chicano” (a word I don’t like) than as gay. … However, I found myself “exiled” at first by some gay groups, and in some places I’m still somewhat of an “outsider.” The fact is this: I’ve never been a cheerleader, and I never will be.
J -MA: If we can call City of Night a coming of age novel — I think we can — then how should we look at its recurring theme of youth and the dread of aging? In our 2003 interview, you said you were pleased with your appearance, accepted that the “older” man in the mirror obviously wasn’t the 32-year-old John Rechy, and that was okay. How do you look now at “the frantic running that, for me, was youth”? At some point you stopped “running.” How did it affect you?
I am still very much concerned with my appearance, to the extent that I continue to work out with weights, eat correctly, et cetera. But I am not obsessed with it as I was once. I am satisfied with how I have aged. I have, yes, stopped “the frantic running,” and I am happy for that.
TL: Having written autobiographical novels and memoir, can you talk about the pleasures and perils of the different forms, particularly for a novelist whose work has been read in such close parallel with the life? Did nonfiction feel strange? Different? Forbidding? A relief?
Thank you for the great question. … Increasingly, or, perhaps better, consciously, I’ve tried to “erase” in my work (actually from the very beginning) the demarcation between fiction and nonfiction. All literature is a form of lying, and in the hierarchy of such, I view the autobiographer as the biggest liar for claiming to remember everything as it happened, whereas memory has already done its powerful editing. Next in the hierarchy of liars is the biographer, who dares to claim that he can “know” another’s life. The most honest of the hierarchy is the fiction writer, who says in effect, “This is a lie, a fiction, and I’m trying to convince you it’s all true. …” In my memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman, I mixed actual — remembered, however imperfectly — experiences with an evolving novel; that is, the so-called autobiographical events are transformed into fiction within the same book. My new book, titled Island! Island!, I describe as “true fiction,” based on facts that I remember, and intertwined with fiction.
And, yes, doing away with the arbitrary demarcations separating fiction and nonfiction has given me a sense of great artistic freedom.
J-MA: Finally, in writing about Skipper, you say, “Life reveals itself, if at all, slowly — and often through patterns discovered in retrospect.” Looking back at your own life, what patterns have you discovered? Which of the patterns in your own life/history were deliberately woven, which were not, and what did you discover from them?
What have I discovered? I guess I’ll go on saying there is no substitute for salvation, a phrase that appears in every one of my books; but what I may have come to believe is that what is required is to redefine the word “salvation,” by pulling it away from any religious context. Then salvation may be found in living as good a life as the terrifying world allows. For me that now occurs when I’m writing a new book and considering it my best; also in sharing my life with Michael, my “mate” of over 30 years. I’ve often said that instead of committing suicide, I met Michael, and that has allowed me several decades more to create and to share in Michael’s own creative life.
John-Manuel Andriote has reported on HIV/AIDS as a journalist since 1986, and is the author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America; Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco/Dance Music; and the children’s book Wilhelmina Goes Wandering, based on the true story of a runaway cow.