In April, Rechy was in New York to receive the Publishing Triangle Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement. We met at his hotel for this brief conversation.
Bruce Benderson: You mentioned that there's a real anecdote behind your new novel.
John Rechy: Back in 1981, the matter of AIDS was insinuating itself. We were all hoping not. It was too terrible. In 1981 in Los Angeles, I used to cruise a small park in West Hollywood. It's a family park, but at night it turned into an orgy. And there was a tool shed. A single evening there stuck in my mind all these years until I finally wrote this book.... I remember that hot, hot, night, a Santa Ana night; a young kid, 20, 21, 22, very beautiful, proceeded to take off his clothes and press himself naked against the tool shed, and whoever wanted to fuck him fucked him, one after the other until he was exhausted. To me it was like a crucifixion. It was a beautiful body and he spread his arms out, and by the end of the night he was actually bloody, exhausted, unconscious, and quite possibly... sick. That very same night I met this friend of mine and he said, "Have you heard about this terrible illness people are talking about?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Do you think it's true?" And I said, "I don't know, but if it is..." and I thought of that young man and all these people, and I thought Jesus God.... In my mind that is the night when AIDS appeared in Los Angeles.
I think there will be gay activists who will not know how to take the meaning of this book. What attitude does it reveal on your part about gay responsibility for the AIDS crisis?
My books have never been judgmental, and this is not a judgmental book. What I intended was to capture the exorbitant sexuality of the time that I was part of and that I celebrated, and then the horror came.... It does not indict promiscuity. It goes off wrong if we say our proclivities brought AIDS. It happened that that particular germ could come in through sex, but we have had polio through swimming pools and nobody said swimming pools must now be judged. Nobody could have predicted AIDS. This was something that came the way that fate usually comes.
You are describing people who are living in a very marginal way in this book.
Well, I bristle when people say that we're not different. Gay men put more emphasis on sexuality than any other contingent, for good and ample reasons. We don't have any other thing; this is what we have.
But doesn't that make gays subversive people in terms of the social order?
It makes us subversives to a social order that has no right to claim itself to be the only one.
What if our subversive behavior leads to health crises?
That's something else. I'm aghast at the new kind of recklessness. AIDS is still going on, and the circuit parties, the drug-taking -- it's reckless.... But I still stand for a rich, abundant sexuality. The fact of the matter is that death threatens us.
But doesn't this rich sexuality as you describe it have sinister elements?
When I wrote my novel Rushes, AIDS had not yet appeared, but I was terrified about something happening. I was terrified of the excesses, when sexuality moved into punishment for sex. Degradation. The rituals that were occurring, at the Mine Shaft [a New York sex club], for example, were no longer sexual; they were punishment for sex.
I'm very interested in the structure of your new novel. The Santa Ana wind storm in it is obviously a metaphor for impending doom. The structure of the book is like that, restless gusts that keep building. You visit a dozen characters in the same order for each chapter, over and over, like a gathering storm.
I've always been a very, very careful writer. I've always been very conscious of structure contributing to content. What I increasingly like to do is take what is called reality and order it for meaning, but at the same time remain awed by what we call accident. These characters seem to come from nowhere, but they are moving inevitably to the park at the end of the novel, even though it looks as if they might go to sleep, or do this or that....
What happened when City of Night came out? Did it get bravos from any literary critics?
Before it appeared it got bravos from James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey. When it appeared, there came that deadly review in the New York Review of Books that made me ill, and I fought for 30 years until they printed an apology, after I won my second lifetime achievement award.
What was in that review?
It was so vile, so vicious. It was by a closeted homosexual who then came out, who set about trying to destroy me -- really, I don't mean to be dramatic. And he said, "Despite the adorable photograph of the author, I doubt that he exists," and there began the rumor that there was no such person as myself.
Based on what?
Based on wishing away this book that was very disturbing for somebody like him.
And who did he think had created that long text?
There were rumors that Tennessee Williams had written it from somebody else's account, or Baldwin.
Was it part of that class thing, that a "lowly hustler...."
Exactly. That's it; that's it. That if you could hustle, you could not write it! That was the crux of it. That a hustler could live that life, and at the same time have intelligence and sensitivity -- it threatened them.
So you were not a member of the literary community before or after the book was published?
I'm still not.
Would you consider yourself a sex-positive writer?
Yes. But a new factor has come in, that I feel can be very negative -- the rituals of S&M. I am certainly not judgmental about it, but I think it is an area that is at the core of our self-oppression. It's the most honest form of self-oppression.
So you think that S&M is self-hating?
Of course. I think that in every S&M ritual, the only "S" is a heterosexual and the only "M" is a homosexual, and the dynamics are "I now will play straight, and you will be the queer, and I will punish you for wanting desire."
And you were never attracted by S&M?
I know the attraction. I've felt the rush, but I also have felt the rush of disgust after one feels that for one's own: Jesus Christ, this is self-hatred and how dare I feel this for another fellow.
But you are a... Catholic writer... so maybe that....
Ah, that's right, inescapably, inescapably....