on About My Life and the Kept Woman, a memoir by John Rechy (Grove Press)

The power and deceptions of identities, perceived and assumed, have long been preoccupations of John Rechy. Born in El Paso in 1934, he grew up in a segregated city where Latino families lived on one side of the tracks. His mother was Mexican. His father, an accomplished musician and conductor during his days in Mexico, was “the son of a Scottish father and a snobbish mother who proclaimed insistently that she was of ‘pure Spanish blood.’” Not only did Rechy have the light-skinned features of the father, but he was also handsome. “My ‘Anglo’ coloring contributed to allowing me to become a ‘popular student’ at El Paso High School, a position I sought aggressively,” he writes. “On one rare occasion, I impulsively accepted an invitation to go to the movies with two popular Anglo boys from school. I gave a wrong address to be picked up at, one that corresponded to a pretty two-story house two blocks away from where I lived, three blocks from the telltale railroad tracks. When the time neared for the two to pick me up, I rushed to meet them at the fake address.”

rechy.jpgRechy’s prose style has been called “naturalistic.” For the traditional American naturalists like Jack London, Frank Norris and others, people are driven by looming, impersonal forces. Their novels don’t attempt to penetrate those forces as much as to be propelled by them. Rechy hasn’t traveled far from those novelists. Beginning with City of Night in 1963 and through 13 subsequent books, Rechy has written descriptively, without analysis or depth, affecting a non-judgmental attitude toward his characters. In Rechy’s world, everyone is desperate in some way – to feel superior to others, to be desirable, make money, violate convention, or punish deviations from the norm. One scrapes through life with love (like his mother) or is defeated, bitter and violent (like his father). Sticking to the surface of events and facts, Rechy’s work sometimes reads more like an affidavit than fiction or autobiography. As a hustler, his method was to elicit desire while withholding not his satisfaction but the appearance of need. (The need was only for the score.) His books share the same cool approach, all oiled muscle, no revelation of deeper character. Rechy has been repeatedly gratified, novel after novel, to draw the reader into the bushes. Where other novelists pretend not to care about reviews, Rechy is as vain of his success as he has been of his good looks, and he is utterly unabashed when telling you so. This success has hinged on what was once the novelty and “naturalistic” treatment of his subject matter, a euphemism for quasi-journalistic prose with a loose plotting strategy to evoke lived experience.

About My Life and the Kept Woman is a skillful memoir with the typical pretension of the genre, namely that the significance of an early event will be “discovered” as the story of the life is told. As in all of his work, Rechy teaches us how to adapt to his own level of perception of a particular reality. For the narrative voice, Rechy hews closely to the style he knows: unadorned, confident, declarative, a striking character in a world where the truth is plain to see through the disguises. But most of all, the voice insists on its innocence. In one episode, young Rechy arrives with one of his stories at the residential hotel room of Miss Edwards, his English teacher: “What was one of my hands doing cupping one of the extravagant breasts? I hadn’t put it there. Had she?” Rechy portrays himself as a person with no motives, only desires. It’s the world that has motives: to confine, diminish. Societal guidelines, college fraternity protocol, army regulations. Wherever he goes, Rechy wanders into situations where his beauty provokes others to want his body and affections. Sometimes he offers it to them. But he is also learning to deny pleasure, limit access. His chapters on army life in the early 50’s, detailing the drudgery of the period, are actually some of the most interesting in the memoir because they show Rechy in a transitional stage, poised between the proud insouciance of his Texas youth and the world of men. By the time he hit the pavement in LA, “a rigid set of requirements was evolving for my life on the erotic streets, and the main one was this: to be desired without reciprocation.”

The early, shaping event of his life occurred during his sister Olga’s wedding. To the astonishment of the wedding party, Marisa Guzman had arrived from Mexico. Related to Olga's fiance, she was “the kept woman of Augusto de Leon,” one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. At the reception, the boy finds Marisa sitting in a room “alone, slowly smoking a cigarette.” And also, “I saw a girl my age stationed at another doorway, watching the kept woman as raptly as I had been.” The girl, Alicia Gonzales, later appears as Johnny’s high school classmate. Marisa Guzman also reappears in memory a dozen times, evoked with a clunky regularity, as the narrator wonders why she so persistently sticks in his mind. Why does her image pop up during times of trouble and melancholy? This is a transparent device, of course. But it works, mainly because Rechy’s instinct is always to withhold meaning and judgment throughout the narrative. Marisa holds the promise of understanding. He takes us through the episodes of his life as innocent Johnny slowly awakens to a desirous, hungry world. At the end, the smoking figure of Marisa Guzman is the icon of elegant separation, taking from the world what it offers, coolly appraising the scene, suffering no self-delusions. This, too, is Rechy’s world as a hustler in LA: “It was a world in which I would be desired and not be expected to desire, and I would be paid in confirmation of that powerful fact.”

Rechy’s characters are not especially vivid. What makes them functional is the place Rechy creates for them in his narrative. His sister Olga, living in LA, provides a counterpoint to his hustling life and contributes new information about Alicia Gonzales who, glimpsed early as an insecurely defiant Latina, becomes a rumored presence with a shifting, masked identity. Rechy’s mother, living frugally in the government projects of El Paso where she is regarded as a kind sage, is the sort of long-suffering parent James Cagney has in his gangster movies. Even Rechy’s encounter with Liberace yields little more than a “powerful fact.” Also turning up are Donald Allen, George Cukor, Christopher Isherwood, Gerard Malanga, Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg. Rechy as the smoking Marisa regards it all with a neutral aplomb. One reads thankfully as Rechy avoids the conventions of “growth of character” that memoirs often try to sell. It is not until deep in his chapter on his time in New Orleans that he reflects most movingly, if briefly, about his youth:

“As a child, I was often overwhelmed by a feeling of devastating sorrow for everyone, for everything. At those times, I would stand on the ragged porch of our house on Wyoming Street in El Paso and I would pray into the black sky: ‘Please help everyone.’ Years later, after long sex-hunting on the streets, that feeling of isolated horror, infinite sadness, would recur. Black, black depression would pull me down, lower and lower, until I felt I was drowning in darkness.” The imagery may not be especially fresh, insofar as there is any imagery at all, but in context the passage reads with authenticity.

rechy_0.jpgDon Allen’s arrival marks the beginning of Rechy’s publishing career at Grove. Rechy seems to protest too much about his guilt at using his street-life in his fiction. “But I had escaped – I hated that word. I had survived – I hated that word, too” he says. “I had escaped the final dangers of that world only through the accident of talent. Guilt at times became so suffocating that I gasped aloud, with anger at myself, with sorrow for the lives abandoned.” Rechy says that he wrote most of City of Night in his mother’s project unit, having returned there from LA. He ran home, to safety and unqualified love, and exploited everything he had experienced. City of Night is basically a transcription. Imagination does not count for much with Rechy, whose inventions such as the recurring figure of Marisa Guzman strain credulity without quite cracking it.

One day after counting twenty-seven sexual contacts in Griffith Park (“without once coming”), he asks, “Why? I had asked that question before, but I preferred not to ponder it – what had carved this insatiable need in me, this unfillable demand to be, not really wanted, not loved, no, no, only to be desired? How easy it would be to invoke my father … Too obvious, too easy.” Rechy’s withholding, both delicate and tough, shapes this memoir into a success. What Rechy prefers not to ponder keeps us hungry for what he offers with immediacy. We’ve been hustled.

[Published 2/12/08. $24,00 hardback, 356 pages. With 29 b&w photographs.]