Blow Job

John Rechy biographer sucks up to his subject

John Rechy’s powerful, hypnotic charm first won him clients as a hustler and later bewitched a generation of readers with a series of novels beginning with City of Night. Unfortunately, Charles Castillo, author of Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy, seems to have been too easily seduced by his subject''s powerful charisma. The result is a sycophantic and consistently unsatisfying study of Rechy''s life and work. The central problem with Castillo''s book is in its thesis that Rechy''s greatness as writer and man lies in his conscious rejection of conventional values, in his embrace of his role as outlaw. But the details of Rechy''s life (as related by Castillo, at least) tend to contradict that idea. Exactly how much of an iconoclast can any man be when he hangs out with Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Christopher Isherwood? What sort of rebel makes a living teaching creative writing at a university? Does an outsider hire a high-priced legal team to represent him on a public lewdness rap? And would a real outlaw obsess for three decades about a dismissive review in The New York Review of Books? Rechy comes off particularly poor in the second half of the book, roughly the time from publication of his groundbreaking City of Night in 1963. Until then, Castillo tells his story more or less straightforwardly, with a wealth of convincing detail about Rechy''s childhood. After that, the narrative degrades into Lifetime Network psychobabble, bending over backwards to present Rechy as a heroic victim of society''s sexual hypocrisy. When viewed without Castillo''s rose-colored glasses, however, Rechy emerges as a self-centered prick trading on spectacular looks and shrewd marketing sense, a literary as well as a literal hustler. It''s hard to say what feels more repulsive, Rechy''s unreflective gloating about the time he cock-teased Liberace, or his self-serving asides on his greatness as an artist, dropping names like Euripides, Robbe-Grillet and Gênet. (Well, to tell the truth, the repulsiveness prize has to go to Rechy''s obsessive dismissal of negative critics as trolls with small cocks.) Reading City of Night in the 70s, right when I was coming out, was an overwhelming experience for me, like opening a door and seeing an entirely new world outside. What haunts me to this day is the novel''s unflinching emotional honesty. But in the extensive interviews Rechy gave Castillo for this book, little rings true; every detail feels calculated to burnish Rechy’s bad-boy genius legend. For the couple of brief chapters touching on Rechy''s life since 1980, Castillo relies on only a few of Rechy''s hangers-on for source material, never introducing a dissenting or even questioning voice. Castillo glosses over subjects many gay readers would want to see addressed. Rechy''s controversial condemnation of the gay S/M scene, for example, rates only a couple of noncommittal paragraphs. And if Rechy took any political stance on AIDS, you won''t read about it here. What''s more, Castillo is a clumsy stylist, gushing in Entertainment Weekly–style sentence fragments filled with hyperbole. He loves to finish his chapters with portentous pronouncements like, “From that day forward Rechy would be living with death.” And surely Castillo''s editor should have warned him not to write “literate” when he obviously wanted to say “coherent,” or to call a literary character a “persona.” What bothered me most in Outlaw, though, was Castillo''s tendency to pad out the sometimes-sketchy facts of Rechy’s life story with details from his semi-autobiographical novels. The reader is left wondering, “Did Rechy really do that, or was it a scene from one of his books?” The last thing a biographer needs to do is further blur the line between Rechy and his fictional alter egos. If I want to renew my acquaintance with “Johnny Rio” or “Endore,” I’ll pull out my old paperbacks of Numbers or Rushes. After reading Outlaw, though, I''m afraid I already know more than enough about John Rechy.

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