Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist; pioneer of LGBT and Chicano literature
March 10, 1931
El Paso, Texas
When City of Night was published, novels featuring gay men were still considered somewhat unusual, despite earlier appearances of works containing gay themes such as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1934), Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), and James Barr’s Quatrefoil (1950). Major publishers did not encourage such works, fearing the backlash they could unleash against their companies. The public had been somewhat enlightened by Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), but attitudes regarding gay behavior and identity viewed it as abnormal or deviant behavior.
John Francisco Rechy (REH-chee), son of Roberto Sixto Rechy and Guadalupe Flores de Rechy, was descended from Mexican and Anglo-Saxon forebears. Born in El Paso, Texas, he spoke Spanish until he began school. Rechy remained in El Paso for his undergraduate education, receiving his bachelor’s degree from Texas Western College. He continued his education at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His residence there shaped much of his future career as novelist.
Despite his Mexican background, Rechy, until the publication of The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, drew less on Chicano themes than he did upon the acculturation he received in New York’s gay society in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His writing career was bolstered in 1961 when his short story, “The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny,” a gay-oriented story, received the Longview Foundation Fiction Prize. This award communicated to Rechy that he was an estimable writer and that a story focusing on gay topics could garner public recognition.
Winning the Longview award led to Rechy’s obtaining a publishing contract for City of Night. He had begun it in 1959, but it remained unfinished until 1963. Much influenced by Tennessee Williams’s plays, particularly Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Rechy focuses in City of Night on the peregrinations and sexual adventures of a hustler who wanders from New York to the gay enclaves in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans. The first-person narration closely parallels Rechy’s own adventures during the 1950s.
This first novel, an immediate best-seller in the United States and abroad, is much in the eighteenth century picaresque tradition of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). Episodic in its development, each portion is virtually a discrete entity welded to the whole by the unifying thread of first-person narration.
Rechy, capitalizing on the book’s popularity and a more accepting public climate, in 1967 followed City of Night with Numbers, a novel in which the gay protagonist, Johnny Río, once a male prostitute in Los Angeles, returns after three years with the goal of making three conquests a day for ten days. Cruising Griffith Park, he easily achieves his aim, indeed exceeding it by seven.
This novel, although it reached the best-seller list, evoked scorn from critics and dismay from many readers. It was widely viewed as borderline pornography rather than as Rechy’s existential revelations about a protagonist trying to thwart death by living riotously.
Perhaps stung by the reception of Numbers, Rechy next wrote This Day’s Death, a well-controlled bifurcated novel about the encroaching death of Jim Girard’s mother, a situation that parallels his trial on trumped-up charges of sexual perversion; although innocent, he is convicted. His conviction scuttles his hope of becoming an attorney and raises serious questions about whether the justice system works for LGBT people.
The Vampires introduces gay themes and has a preponderance of gay characters, but it focuses more on evil than on the sexual matters Rechy emphasized in his earlier novels. The Fourth Angel, built around a teenage, thrill-seeking trio, the Angels, and its recruitment of a fourth Angel, Jerry, studies the dominant Angel, Shell, who rejects sentimentality in counterdistinction to the fourth Angel, Jerry, who needs love and epitomizes the softness that Shell disparages.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1976 enabled Rechy to research his next book, The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary, which is alternately documentary and fictional. Rechy explores the psychology behind the gay male’s frantic search for homosexual encounters, finding it to be, at least in part, a way of rebelling against oppressive authority.
Rushes is set in Rushes, a bar that attracts men with leather and uniform fetishes—macho men who, although gay, are contemptuous of their orientation and of other gay men less butch than they are. In Bodies and Souls, a work strongly influenced by Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1954), the evangelistic protagonist is left a seven-figure bequest by a wily follower who attaches conditions to it, in much the way conditions were attached to the bequest in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (1956). Rechy’s first book to reflect the Chicano viewpoint was The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. Set in the Los Angeles barrio, it traces the life of a Chicano family in Los Angeles, incorporating not only working-class realism but also the magic realism of religious and Mexican fables.
In 1996, Rechy again mixed realism and myth in Our Lady of Babylon, in which a woman accused of murdering her husband dreams of maligned women in history, only to discover that her dreams are memories of past lives. In 1999, The Coming of the Night, Rechy returned to his Los Angeles setting and some of his themes in City of Night to narrate the events of a windy day in 1981, at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, and a cast of gay characters who meet a group of gay bashers in a West Hollywood park. The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, as its title suggests, traces the picaresque exploits of its protagonist from his conservative, fundamentalist Texas hometown to liberal, liberated Los Angeles.
A winner of PEN West’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Rechy maintains an active career as writer, lecturer, and respected teacher of writing—although he remains true to his iconoclastic image. In the October 6, 2002, edition of the Los Angeles Times, he debunked the Terrible Three rules of writing: “Show, don’t tell”; “Write about what you know”; and “Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to.” Rechy’s three: “[S]howing may be created through refined telling”; “Write about whatever you want”; and “Write about characters, good or evil, who fascinate.” Rechy published a memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman, in 2008.