Technicolor Saints and Celebrated Outlaws: An Interview with John Rechy




JOHN RECHY’S latest novel, Pablo!, first written in 1948 when the author was 18–19 years old, reads like a myth. While that quality is owed in part to the Mayan myths that structure the story of a fraught love between “The Woman” and the eponymous Pablo — at least one of these being the myth in which the sun and the moon are lovers ever seeking union with one another and ever failing to achieve it — it is also a quality present in much of Rechy’s writing. What Rechy writes, I suppose I should say, isn’t realist fiction per se (though I’d argue that he captures certain pitches and tones of human desire with a rare honesty), but rather prose that follows haunted wanderers navigating the dreamlike space of society’s fringes. Indeed, this is perhaps the locus proper for his novel City of Night, which has defined both Rechy’s career and catapulted him to the pantheon of post-Stonewall literary legend since its publication in 1963.  

In their sojourns toward an unrealizable ideality like love, happiness, or fame, we discover the haunting nature of our own desires, our yearnings for some other place, and our dissatisfaction with what merely is. In this way, Rechy’s fiction is the literature of desire and, perhaps necessarily, embattled relation. To read Rechy’s writing, then, is to at once relish an escape into some other place — the underworld of hustlers, the seedy delight of a dancehall, the parched lawn of a desert home — while at the same time confronting our own deep misgivings about the world as it is.

Pablo! debuted earlier this year, almost a year to the day following After the Blue Hour. When I reviewed Rechy’s prior novel in these pages, I struggled to find writers who felt familiar to his voice. Jean Genet, for reasons obvious to Rechy’s readers, seemed a reasonable but never entirely satisfying fit. Rechy is in a class of his own, his voice speaking unflinchingly about lives that are by turns joyful, mournful, frustrated, potential, disappointed; lives that, in all their complexity and refusal to submit to any singular reading, are deeply and unerringly human. I took the opportunity presented by the publication of Pablo! to reach out to Rechy over email with some questions about, well, everything. In what follows, we talk about the challenges of revision, the limitation of identity, how queerness functions in his work (“queerness” is a word, by the way, that Rechy detests), and the struggles that come hand in hand with a wildly successful first novel.

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ERIC NEWMAN: In Francisco Lomelí’s afterword, he notes that you shelved Pablo! for decades because you didn’t want it to be compared with City of Night. Can you talk about how City of Night has affected your writing both before and after its publication?

JOHN RECHY: I expected City of Night to receive praise and sell little. During the first weeks of publication, the reverse occurred: vicious reviews, great sales. Eventually the reviews became positive and the book continued to sell. Despite sales, I was broke, in El Paso, where I had returned to finish City of Night. (Grove Press was broke, too, having spent all its money defending Henry Miller and Jean Genet books against obscenity charges. City of Night helped pull Grove out.) A man who admired my novel and was angered by its critical assault in The New York Review of Books invited me to visit him in New York. Then we traveled to Tanglewood, then Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. I welcomed being away, sheltering my private life. In New York, impostors emerged; items appeared in gossip columns, and a scandal magazine claimed to reveal who the “real John Rechy” was. All that led me to protect my anonymity, and I continued to write.

Why do you think audiences have been so enormously responsive to City of Night since its publication? Does that present challenges to you as a writer?

Even today, people will say to me, “I love your book.” “Which one?” I ask, somewhat testily. At times I’ve felt that my subsequent books have to compete with my first, although my writing has developed far beyond that first book. I revise endlessly, and with each book I write, I develop a style consistent with the narrative. I was greatly influenced by movies; and at times I write in “Technicolor” (Bodies and Souls) with rich but controlled language and at other times in “black and white” (The Sexual Outlaw) with fewer adjectives, few colors, stark, shorter sentences …

You went back to revise Pablo! a number of times since you first wrote it in the late 1940s, and I’ve heard that you’ve never been entirely satisfied with the final draft. What were the challenges that you faced in revisions?

I’ve never written a book that has not gone through at least six full drafts (page one to the end), then I make revisions throughout, and then come “refinements.” With Pablo!, the challenges were in my choices. I was using Mayan myths as the frame, and yet my view of them was modern. I conveyed that in the prose, in the Mayan sections suggesting some of the rhythms and tone of the legends. As the book progresses toward the ending (in “the great modern city”), the prose became darker — dark adjectives, lots of shadows. When I attempted to revise that book, I found myself veering away from the original. Each time, I returned almost entirely to the first draft, the one that finally pleased me, the version now published, with very minor changes, which include these: I had used the word “beautiful” dozens of times. I deleted or changed the word, and I omitted “myriad” from the very last sentence of the book, not wanting to send any reader to the dictionary, away from my very careful ending.

Your first published short story, “Mardi Gras,” was something of an early draft of City of Night. What were you working on around the time you started writing Pablo! and the publication of “Mardi Gras”?

Before Pablo! — when I was about 14 or so — I was writing a novel about — believe it or not — Marie Antoinette (although at that time we were quite poor), inspired by the sad movie [MGM’s 1938 film, Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer as the legendary French queen]. I researched deeply, especially into [Thomas] Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. I wrote several hundred pages of it, in longhand, pencil and ink. In high school, I abandoned that to write an exposé of high school. By then I was using a Royal typewriter and produced maybe 50 pages of the exposé. (I destroyed those books when I went into the army.) Then Pablo! came along. Around the same time, now in college, I became editor of the school publication. I was fired after a few issues because I included an article on Modern Art, and a satire (illustrated by me) about some absurd activities and people at the college. It ended as follows (forgive me, Mr. T. S. E.): “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a Ha! Ha! Ha!”

There was a lot of drama around labeling you a “Chicano writer” during the 1970s from those who felt that you weren’t adequately addressing or representing themes and experiences that a narrow collective of academics defined as “Chicano literature.” That question has long since been settled — you are properly recognized as one of the most important (and pioneering) Chicano writers of the 20th century — but I’m wondering how you navigated that.

That misconception dogged me from the first and still angers me. It was entirely unjustified. Before City of Night was published, I had written articles about poverty and discrimination against Mexicans in El Paso for The Nation (when the legendary Carey McWilliams was its brave editor and it had not become a rich-liberal publication). I wrote also for The Texas Observer — about minority kids abused in detention centers (that article resulted in an investigation into such conditions — and there were subsequent corrections); I wrote about a Mexican kid in solitary, and that brought about repercussions at Huntsville Prison in Texas. For the Saturday Review, I wrote about a sense of revolution among young Chicanos. And the narrator in City of Night is Mexican-American. I did some translations from Spanish into English, for Evergreen Review (an interview with Elena Poniatowska) and for the Texas Quarterly (stories by Emilio Carballido and Ricardo Garibay). I didn’t learn English till I went to grammar school (where a silly Anglo kindergarten teacher changed my real name — which is Juan — to “Johnny” because whenever she had occasion to count and said “one” I responded, thinking she was calling me); and — imagine this — as a kid, I played an allegorical Christ Child, in Spanish, in El Monje Blanco. How then to account for the misconception about my “Mexican” identity? Maybe my last name? I suppose a part of it had to be homophobia. But questions about my identity have been dispelled, especially with the publication of The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez and my being awarded the Luis Leal Award (which I cherish especially) for distinguished contribution to “Hispanic/Chicano” literature.

I’m interested in Lomelí’s observation that you are “a writer who has not been constrained by his ethnicity, but rather, lets his ethnicity enrich his writing.” How do you see the relationship between ethnic identity and literary work?

I’ve sometimes said I write in “Catholic Mexican-American” prose (at first, not so now), a style influenced by the theatricality of the Catholic Mass, the splashy Technicolor of the saints in churches, the throbby liturgy. That influence will probably always seep into my writing. I don’t want to be defined as a Chicano writer, or a gay writer, just “writer” will do. Those labels ghettoize art.

How does the figure of the wanderer — the man searching for a place, for a community, for a lover, for anything and usually finding nothing — function in your fiction?

I celebrate that figure as an “outlaw.” That’s someone who lives in defiance of oppressive laws, and, in doing so, thrives against those strictures.

There are a number of ways in which Pablo! recalls to me the dark, dreamscape narrative I associate with Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood or Nathanael West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell. What were your influences when you first started working on the manuscript?

I don’t really remember where or why I became interested in Mayan myths. They’re not part of my background. But I was lured by their exotic nature, their mysterious strangeness, prowling ghosts — La Llorona, the Xtabay, and those edge into Catholicism’s spooky religious superstitions.

How does Pablo’s queerness fit into the heterosexual frame of the myth central to the novel: the male sun and the female moon seeking union?

Let me first introduce an aside: I hate the word “queer” and all its new iterations. “Gay” was awful enough. “‘Gays’ makes us sound like bliss ninnies,” Christopher Isherwood said once. “Queer” will always be for men of my generation a word of violence and hatred, and it separates generations. And while I’m digressing, let me commit blasphemy: the over-emphasis on the Stonewall riots depletes and distorts our history of resistance and the art produced, which is determinedly referred to as “pre-Stonewall.” Resistance occurred years before Stonewall (but there were lots of writers in New York at the time to write about those riots), in San Francisco, Los Angeles, other cities, powerful confrontations with the police, powerful demonstrations. “Pre-Stonewall” writers include William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, strong radical voices confronting the grave dangers of the time, violence, prison.

Back to your question: A strict adherence to myths, to symbols can overwhelm a narrative, drain it of vital life. Symbols should add nuance, enrich, extend meaning. Now as to how Pablo — who is not necessarily gay — may fit into the legend’s theme of impossibility — the moon and the sun forever separated — I’ve used the legend as a frame for the impossible searches my characters embark on. The prose reflects that theme, somber, “poetic,” like Mexican “cuentos.” In the last part of the book, in “the modern city,” the prose becomes more modern, harsher, many shadows and dark imagery. In the chain of impossibility, Pablo’s is the most impossible, and I borrowed from a more modern-oriented legend, the story of Narcissus, impossibly pursuing his own reflection.

There is also something of a contest between indigenous and Christian Catholic religious traditions in the novel. On the one hand, this is a way of demonstrating the conflict between ideologies and ways of knowing the world initiated by the contact between indigenous and colonial cultures in the Columbian period and its afterlives. On the other hand, it might also suggest the union of two seemingly opposing structures of belief and faith. What are you gesturing at in putting those two belief systems together?

You can’t separate Latino/Mexican/Chicano culture from Catholicism. It is too firmly planted, rooted, deep. Even when Mexicans become Protestants (which always strikes me as strange although I am not religious anymore), they will still quiver in awe at the grand spectacle of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Sex figures prominently in all of your work, but not usually in any way that meets the sort of liberationist and dewy narratives we tend to tell about sex: finding your truth, encountering another person in an honest and unmediated way, the promise of ecstasy, the possibility of utopia, et cetera. How have you considered sex in your writing and how has that approach changed over the course of your career?

Yes, I’ve written a great deal about sex, in all its configurations, I think. It’s central to everybody’s life — even in the so-called abstinent life, a hollow presence. It is still laden with ugly prohibitions between/among consenting adults. The reason so many writers have difficulty writing about sex — e.g., so many hilarious euphemisms, which are honored in England with the “bad sex” yearly award [the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award] — is that they separate it, something to be treated differently from other aspects of life, to be camouflaged. This is my view: sex scenes should be well written, as graphic as you need, but never vulgar.

How do you think you’ve changed as a writer from the manuscript version of Pablo! to After the Blue Hour?

I consider After the Blue Hour my most fully realized book. I accomplished everything I set out to do with it. It is the most “literary/intellectual” of my books (discussing the evolution of the novel while the novel itself evolves, et cetera); it’s also the most erotic — I used the increasing heat as an element to enhance that aspect. I worked to move the book forward from “realism” while — imperceptibly, gradually — edging it toward surrealism and implicit horror. I worked on that ending over and over, word by word to achieve what I call “retrospective inevitability,” in the development of the prose and of the narrative. There should be no other possible ending, and it should make a reader move away with it, not away from it.

So what’s next for you? Do you have any more projects on the horizon?

I hope to continue to develop what I call “True Fiction,” the melding of discernible elements of “autobiography” and fiction, done right on the page. In After the Blue Hour, I wrote passages that the narrator considers too “difficult [for the reader] to believe” and right there he rewrites them into the “believable” — as fiction. I hope to continue to experiment with language. The actual “blue hour” is a time of perfect twilight, day and night, light and darkness. I try to sustain that duality throughout the book, in the language, the narrative. There is a terrible word that describes a unique effect that I explore: the terrible word is “oxymoron.” Its possibilities to create new effects fascinate me: “bright darkness,” “a cool warmth,” “saintly evil,” “cold heat.” I usually work on several books at once, and then one takes over. Right now, I’m working on two: Beautiful People at the End of the Line and Jesus and Judas: A Love Story.

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Eric Newman is a writer and researcher whose work explores questions of race, belonging, identification and utopian imagination early twentieth century queer American literature. 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 90.7FM and a lecturer in English at UCLA.


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