Follow-up: John Rechy

Yesterday’s posting “High 5 from a bison”, all about number(s), ended with some exposition of John Rechy’s 1967 novel Numbers, about a male hustler collecting lots of tricks — numbers of numbers — on the streets and in the parks of Los Angeles. Now two follow-ups: Soft Cell’s (“Tainted Love”) musical tribute to the novel, and notes on Rechy’s life and career, still going at 88.

Soft Cell. From Wikipedia:


The Art of Falling Apart is the second full-length album by the English synthpop duo Soft Cell [Marc Almond and David Ball], released in 1983. [“Numbers” was the 3rd track of 8 on the original album]

(#2)… And you never know their names

Because names make a person real
And there’s no real people in these games

… Until you wake up one day
And find that you’re a number

Rechy and his cohort. To place him in his times: Rechy’s immediate cohort, of gay male writers born close to 1930 (living people’s names in boldface):

†Edward Albee 3/12/28; †Thom Gunn 8/29/29; John Rechy 3/10/31 [note: Rechy doesn’t like the label gay]

Some other men (of gay interest, but not all gay) in this cohort:

†Maurice Sendak 6/10/28; Stephen Sondheim 3/22/30; †Steve McQueen 3/24/30; †Harvey Milk 5/22/30; †James Dean 2/8/31; †Tab Hunter 7/11/31; †Anthony Perkins 4/4/32; Joel Grey 4/11/32

In the preceding cohort, gay male writers born close to 1925 (the list is heavy on poets; hey, that’s one of my things):

†James Baldwin 8/2/24; †Truman Capote 9/30/24; †Yukio Mishima 1/14/25; †Jack Spicer 1/30/25; †James Merrill 3/3/26; †Frank O’Hara 3/27/26; †Allen Ginsberg 6/3/26; †John Ashbery 7/28/27

Some other gay men in this cohort:

†Rock Hudson 11/17/25; †Roy Cohn 2/20/27 [Cohn famously denied being gay]

The cohort following Rechy’s (men born close to 1935) is very sparse indeed, presumably an effect of the Great Depression; for gay male writers, I find only:

Larry Kramer 6/25/35

(My own cohort, of men born close to 1940, is much bigger.)

Webs of association, friendship, and sexual connection are complex and often dense. Thom Gunn taught at Stanford on occasion, but we never met. I never met Ginsberg, but we’re just two steps apart sexually. Otherwise, given our sexual and life histories, it would be remarkable if I were not connected by sexual chains to Rechy, Gunn, O’Hara, and Kramer, but of course the links would just have been nameless numbers (and the chains possibly quite long).

Rechy in old age. After a very long slog of being both reviled and celebrated, and patching together a life from gigs teaching writing at various institutions (at which, I am told by friends, he was very good) and erratic income from his books, with frequent work breaks for hustling and simple tricking as well (activities he is not in the slightest apologetic about — think of them as passionate hobbies), Rechy has reached some sort of apex of his career, with the publication of two books in the past two years, awards and honors, and interviews. He’s now famous in L.A., in gay/queer studies, and in Chicano/Hispanic studies (he’s Mexican-American).

At 88, he is still intensely body-proud, extremely guarded about his emotions, and invested in projecting a strongly masculine identity — and entirely self-aware about all of this.

Two L.A. interviews in 2018, the first focused on his 2017 novel After the Blue Hour, the second on his novel Pablo!, published in 2018.

From the LA Times on 10/19/18, in “John Rechy, a prophet of liberation” by Alex Espinosa:

(#2) “John Rechy, at home in Los Angeles, is the charismatic 87-year-old writer whose “City of Night,” published in 1963, is a landmark of gay literature. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)” [Yes, he dyes his hair. Carefully.]

… He lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet section of Encino.

… Rechy and his mate Michael (he bristles at the term “partner” or “husband”) meet me at the door. Rechy’s handshake — like his writing, like his very life — is exact, tough, but tender at the same time. His stare is focused, nothing gets past him, and when he gives you that look, you want to linger there with him. At 87, he is still producing work.

(#3) “John Rechy in the 1970s (Collection of John Rechy)”

“After the Blue Hour” was published last February by Grove Press. “The novel is unflinching in its candor even as its events have a tantalizing aura of mystery,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly; Kirkus Review called it “[b]eautifully written.” The novel won the 2018 Lambda Literary award for best gay fiction.

Then from the Los Angeles Review of Books on 9/2/18, in “Technicolor Saints and Celebrated Outlaws: An Interview with John Rechy” by Eric Newman:

[EN:]John Rechy’s latest novel, Pablo! [published in 2018], 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.

… [JR:] 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.

Amen on the “pre-Stonewall” rant.


10 Responses to “Follow-up: John Rechy”

  1. kenru Says:

    Years ago I espied Rechy hustling for tricks on Santa Monica Blvd. Presumably it wasn’t to make a living…but maybe it was his way to get adulation. Anyway, even then he was ‘way too old for me to consider picking him up. But he still had a great body.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I think it was about pleasure derived from his being desired. No doubt, with that body he found takers, especially from men who prefer older men.

  2. Michael Says:

    I think I’m pretty much exactly the right age (b. 1957) for City of Night to be highly formative in terms of my own sexuality, although I didn’t get over sex-worker shaming until much later. It was kind of a naughty counterpoint to Christopher and his Kind.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Three components in the censure Rechy got: (1) promiscuous sex that is largely (2) anonymous (or, at least, in a context where names and social identities are largely irrelevant), and then also (3) for money.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From a friend, posting on Facebook:

    I read “City of Night” when it first came out in 1963. I was a CIS-gender hetero 15 year old girl. I thought it was an extraordinary and important book. Still do. Glad to know Rechy is still with us.

    My response:

    A fair number of women I know, especially younger ones, had this response at the time. Quite a few gay men in the age range 15-25 at the time report that it was crucial to an understanding of their sexuality. Older gay men in the mainstream media largely raked it both as literature and as a depiction of (a part of) gay life — retrograde and repellent.

  4. chrishansenhome Says:

    I read “City of Night” when I was a late teenager–I can’t recall how I hid it from my parents. I found it fascinating and very hot. I may still have my copy somewhere–I must dig it out and read it again.

    As for pre- and post-Stonewall: I think that those significantly older than me (I’m 66) saw more of the pre-Stonewall gay life than I did. I moved to NYC a year after Stonewall to go to Columbia and was too scared to do anything, although I had chances that I now regret not taking. For us younger folk I think that using Stonewall as a dividing line (like BC/AD) is useful. I’m not saying that what went before was worse than what came after, just different.

  5. maxvasilatos Says:

    I may be completely misremembering but I could swear Rechy was friends with William S. Burroughs, and Naked Lunch had more than a little to do with City of Night. Also, Rechy has to have at least met J G Ballard, who fits within your defined cohort there. And if they all didn’t know Philip Jose Farmer, I’ll eat my shoe.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, this is complicated. Neither Burroughs nor Farmer made my little lists because they were from earlier cohorts (Burroughs born in 1914, Farmer in 1918); Jack Kerouc similarly didn’t make it, but just barely: he was born in 1922. J.G. Ballard (born 11/15/30) is certainly in Rechy’s cohort, but though he treated sex boldly in his works, I hadn’t thought of him as someone of specifically gay interest. Someone I did miss is Hubert Selby Jr., born 7/27/28, whose Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) — nearly contemporaneous with Rechy’s City of Night — had high-octane gay content.

      I had always thought that Burroughs was a significant influence on Rechy (though I haven’t seen Rechy’s opinion of the matter), but it hadn’t occurred to me that they were friends, at least not face-to-face friends: Rechy’s orbit has always been L.A., but there was his stint in the Army and some grad school at Columbia, where he might have connected with the Beats of NYC. Burroughs’s orbit was NYC and drug destinations in exotic places. And Burroughs was 16 years older than Rechy. But I know very little about the cultural history of the time

      I fell into this by tracking senses of number(s) in connection with a cartoon, and I’m not prepared to take up a research project on John Rechy’s life and works, fascinating though that would be. (Meanwhile, I’m largely failing to cope with Swiss migrations to — what are now — Ukraine and Belarus in the 19th century, since that topic has overwhelmed me with mountains of archival material. All to write about a Zwicky in Miami.)

  6. [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look at what famed gay writer John Rechy is doing these […]

  7. maxvasilatos Says:

    Heavens, I’d no intention of pushing you into further research about people Rechy might have known. As you’ve heard and can infer more, I chased Rechy and them around for a while.

    Now I’m concluding that there were sort of parallel bunches of men who wrote explicitly about gay physicality, the one with Burroughs as a father, and another one of a more academic/intellectual bent, more in NYC, freed by Genet maybe, with Ginsberg as a sort of pet or mascot. I have a misty notion that Burroughs and Rechy might have intersected in Mexico very early on.

    Ballard wrote gobs of wild detailed explicit sex scenes overlaid with gore, plus a short story called “Why I Want to F*** RIchard Nixon” (probably not exactly right, but you get the gist). I remember it, but it doesn’t appear in his complete collection. He had a thing about celebrities, and of course Rechy wrote _Marilyn’s Daughter_, yes that Marilyn. LA, man.

    Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009) was a science fiction guy, but he wrote weird not well-known flights of fancy with sexual permutations beyond anything I could imagine or dream (though as I recall, nobody was Gay per se). And he was in LA.

    Come to think of it, Vance Bourjaily (1922-2010) was another academic Writer with a capital W, in LA, with lots of medical-ish physical acrobatics, absent any gay identity or romance. The movie Thundercrack was of that culture.

    I loved that moment in literature.

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