Between the Sheets: Sex, Power, and Literary Desire in John Rechy’s “After the Blue Hour”
By Eric NewmanApril 17, 2017
After the Blue Hour by John Rechy
Paul has invited Rechy out to his island when the writer is between career-defining moments in the summer of 1960, just after Rechy’s short stories about the queer sexual subcultures of New Orleans and Los Angeles put him on the literary map and before his 1963 novel, City of Night, marked him as one of the most important gay writers of his generation. Blue Hour’s fictional Rechy tells this tale from the vantage point of an author shuttling between fidelity to the world his work represents and worries about how his tales might be taken up by readers. This tension expresses itself in the narrative form of the novel, which juxtaposes scenes of observation and representation with a narrative voice that makes the reader complicit in its literary production. “I will never write about this island,” Rechy muses in one moment, “Its mysteries baffle me. How can I record what I don’t understand?” Such metafictional moments percolate throughout the novel, as the young Rechy wrangles with the ethics of writing City of Night: “It’ll be about the people I met on the streets, hustlers, queens,” he thinks, “but I’ll have to overcome a feeling that I’m invading their lives.” Likewise, he struggles with how to make sense of his experience on Paul’s island and how to translate it into writing. When he begins writing a scene that “sounded like an opening to a story about the island,” Rechy’s narrator hesitates, unsure of “how such an account, if written, would end.” That confusion suffuses the novel, to the point that readers may find little in the way of concrete revelation by the novel’s end, despite (or in accord with) Blue Hour’s titular reference to the “few seconds of blue light between dusk and night […] when everything reveals itself as it is […] [when] everything is both clearest and most obscure — a light that challenges perception, revealing and hiding.” That pas de deux between revelation and unknowability structures the novel’s approach to fiction as a “terrific lie” that, by virtue of its “camouflage,” bears more authenticity, more purchase on the churning confusion of the real, than biography or autobiography.
In such moments, Rechy’s novel offers a series of craft talks — Rechy is also a noted teacher of writing — alongside short doses of literary criticism. Henry Miller’s sex scenes are “dirty,” we learn, because his characters are unattractive. Djuna Barnes offers readers “a dark jungle of words” from which they might never reemerge. Camus’s “plain prose […] affirms the banality of fate.” The young Rechy explains to Paul that his signature use of a simultaneous past and present is a technique for faithfully representing the mind’s refusal to mark a difference between what has happened and what is happening. Paul’s backstory comes to us in conversations that the narrator describes as “‘installments,’ not unlike chapters”; when Paul’s teenage son interrupts these tales, Rechy’s irritation mirrors the reader’s in forestalling the moment when it might seem that “something essential would be revealed.”
Throughout After the Blue Hour, Rechy wrestles with how he might end a tale about the island, caught between a belief that “an ending must have retrospective inevitability […] fate found only in retrospect” and the failure of his experience to suggest how he might arrive at such a conclusion. (For its own part, the novel stays true to this aspect of Rechy’s vision, its climax visible from miles away, like Catalina Island from the shores of Santa Monica on a clear day.) Halfway through the novel, Rechy struggles to divine the logic of the plot unfolding on the island: “[W]here are events on this island moving? Everything evolves unexpectedly, and then is forgotten, ignored, relegated to silence.” And this struggle reflects both the self-conscious cliffhangers of a prior era’s radio plays and the difficulty of translating life, in its messiness, disorder, and ambiguous circuitousness, to fiction. Reading After the Blue Hour, one becomes not so much a reader as an active participant in the making of a fiction, an accomplice in the writing of a tale that both is and isn’t real life.
Of course, such craft-related concerns matter little to Paul, who is not a writer but a reader and interpreter. His connection to Rechy is a literary one, of course, and both men compete with one another in what can sometimes feel like a laundry list of writerly influences that, the novel seems to argue, tell us something about both the type of person each character is and the particular uses to which he puts literature. For Paul, the literature of decadence and sexual violence — Miller, yes, but also Gide, Genet, Sade, Baudelaire, Mishima, and Nietzsche — offers a kind of moral philosophy that justifies his cruelty to women, his longing to dominate and to be dominated. When Paul turns his interpretive eye toward Rechy’s writing, After the Blue Hour reaches its most compelling moment of authorial anxiety. Unable to articulate the grand meaning of cruising for casual sex, Rechy is confronted by Paul’s quickly offered reading: “Power, of course, man, sexual power. You wanted power over willing victims.” For Paul, Rechy’s accounts of cruising offer the stuff of dreams: the satisfaction of sexual need without any concern for the other, a crafted and calculated cool indifference that posits nonattachment and the evacuation of empathy as the apotheosis of self-liberation. “We’re two of a kind,” Paul tells Rechy, who recoils in horror:
Whatever else I might feel for him, I did not admire his life, through which coursed a vein of meanness, of unmitigated selfishness, and cruelty. Had such a vein coursed through my own life? […] He had invited me here, fired up by my narratives of excess — the orgiastic profusion of Mardi Gras amid laughing demonic angels, fleeting intimate connections, indifferent excess — and he, Paul, was fired up too by my accounts of vagrant sexual interludes in downtown Los Angeles in the arena of doomed exiles on the very edge with nothing to lose […]
Paul’s mercenary way of reading fiction distills from it only that which supports his violent worldview, leaving behind any complexity and nuance. “I had to reject it,” the young Rechy says to this vulgar reading. In the young writer’s tales of cruising for sex, Paul sees only the utopia of always available, always satisfying sex. This is, of course, one of the foundational myths about gay men’s sexual lives, a myth that idealizes gay sex by alleging its flight from the messy, human complications misogynistically associated with heterosexual sex. It is a myth that circulates in homosexual culture as much as in its heterosexual counterpart, and Rechy reminds us that it is but a thin veneer covering a more complex truth. For anyone who has read City of Night, this thread might be recognizable, but that landmark novel does tremendous work complicating such a world, critiquing it as much as embracing it, and leaving it stripped of any utopian claims. Paul’s selective reading troubles the younger Rechy precisely because it exposes the vein of meanness and cruelty that Rechy would rather deny. In representing the exchange between writer and reader, Rechy discovers not only the life of his cruel interlocutor but also his own, “more vividly recalled than when it had occurred, coldly, indifferently, uncaring, cruel.”
After the Blue Hour might be best understood as a novel characterized by the concerns of late style. If the illusion of representational control is the stuff of a younger career, a reckoning with the stakes of representation defines the latter stages of an author’s life. In returning to the moment before he wrote City of Night, Rechy gives us a fictional account of its composition at a time of crisis and confusion — one no less true for avoiding strictly factual autobiography, as his narrator tells us. The younger Rechy wants to write about the “clowning demonic angels” that constellated his life as a hustler across Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. The older Rechy, spirit and voice of After the Blue Hour, worries over how that writing will be understood, what it will inspire, and what worlds it will put forth. In the end, his narrator recoils from being misunderstood but reconciles such potential misunderstanding and misappropriation as part of the miracle of literature.
Writers gather their lives and ideas about them, bind them to the page with language and technique, and then relinquish them to readers to do as they will with the experience. Among the things Rechy, an elder statesman of post-Stonewall gay literature, has to offer us in the present is a warning about utopian reading. He returns to us the urgency of a fuller rather than selfish practice of reading, one that pursues the nuance in literature rather than seeking to bend it to our own desires.
Eric Newman is a writer, researcher, and PhD Candidate in English at UCLA. His work explores questions of belonging and identification across the color line in early 20th-century queer American literature. He is a former reporter for Condé Nast and Nielsen Business Media. He lives in Los Angeles.
Eric Newman is a writer, critic, and researcher whose work explores questions of race, belonging, identity, and utopian imagination in 20th century queer American culture. A former reporter for Condé Nast and Nielsen Business Media, he is currently the Gender & Sexuality editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, co-host and executive producer of the LARB Radio Hour on KPFK LA 90.7 FM, and a lecturer in English at UCLA. He lives in Santa Monica.
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