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When most novelists go to parties, they don't have to worry about being threatened, challenged, or decked. But that's the way it was for John Rechy, back in the days when he haunted parties in and around Hollywood. "At the time, I was very well known," says the author of City of Night, the groundbreaking 1963 chronicle of gay hustling. "Basically, someone would come up and say: 'You think you're really hot shit?' Somebody would get a little tipsy and they'd want to take me on -- arm wrestling or something. 'You think you're such a stud.' " One of these challengers was Peter Orlovsky, the beat poet and Allen Ginsberg's boyfriend, who accosted Rechy at a party in San Francisco's Nob Hill, sizing him up and asking him how much he could bench-press. "And my answer was always the same: 'Look, I don't care how strong I am. It's that I look like the stronger man.' "
It's a quintessential Rechy response, the dismissive words of a man whose life and career have been devoted to the beauty and mystery of surfaces, artifice, and the power of ego over any and all obstacles. His books have been placed on the short-list of classic Los Angeles novels, alongside Nathanael West's Day of the Locust and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Rechy, an El Paso native who moved to L.A. almost 30 years ago, is a kind of poet laureate of the city.
Rechy has certainly not been idle since City of Night's publication, especially not recently. He's served as a guru to generations of gay men, and his books still excite all kinds of readers, young and old, gay and straight. He's won numerous prizes and became the first novelist to win the PEN/West Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. His writing workshops, offered through USC's graduate school and privately, are widely acclaimed, and he's taught some of the West Coast's sharpest authors and journalists.
The novelist -- whose small stature, impish smile, and barrel chest lend him the bearing of a well-exercised elf -- treats writing like a big fight for which he's constantly training. The mixed reviews for his 12th novel, The Coming of the Night, published last summer, have brought him back with both guns blasting. Simultaneously, Rechy and his companion, a major-studio film producer, have been working on the film rights of his books and have several projects in development. Gus Van Sant, the director whose My Own Private Idaho alludes to Rechy's angelic street hustlers, has spoken with the two about making a film of City of Night. With this month's release of a remarkable CD-ROM produced by USC's Annenberg Center, Mysteries and Desire: Searching the World of John Rechy, the author's fans will get an "interactive memoir" of his life that will allow them to read old reviews and watch computer-generated gay men cruise. Whatever the reception for his latest work, Rechy is now more visible than he's been in years.
Rechy himself could be a character in an Evelyn Waugh-style satire about contemporary L.A. A gay bodybuilder of mixed Mexican and Anglo blood, a proud narcissist who's worked hard to keep himself looking 20 years younger than his actual age, a lover of California's light and glamour and movies, Rechy, 65, embodies much of the city's best and worst features. Life, he says, is a performance -- if done right, a grand performance.
Rechy still has an enormous following, especially among gay men. But his detractors say he's superficial, a writer of limited gifts coasting on his early successes, a throwback to the gay world of the pre-AIDs '60s and '70s who hasn't matured or adapted. He's both a gay hero and a gay outlaw, and as such, his battles typically begin -- rather than end -- when a new novel is published.
Not everybody who meets Rechy, truth be told, wants to arm-wrestle him or praise his prose. For years, most of the people he met -- the men, at least -- wanted to have sex with him. And most of them did. Rechy worked the streets of New York and Los Angeles -- Pershing Square, Selma and Hollywood boulevards -- from the mid-'50s to about 1980, as both a hustler (who was paid) and a cruiser (who wasn't). "I remained on the streets longer than anybody in the world," he says, letting out the kind of knowing laugh with which others might recall hard-drinking fraternity days.
Rechy wove his early years on the streets into the novel City of Night, which is still considered his greatest achievement. The book began as a breathless letter written to a friend about the sadness and joy of Mardi Gras; when Rechy found the letter, crumpled and unsent, he sent a clean draft to the Evergreen Review, where it was printed as a short story alongside Beckett and Kerouac.
The novel, published in 1963 by the maverick Grove Press, became an instant best seller and, due to its glimpse of the gay demimonde during a far less candid era, a publishing phenomenon. It drew the same kind of fervent, gauntlet-throwing jacket copy as Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn. "Rechy tells the truth and tells us with such passion that we are forced to share in the life it conveys," wrote James Baldwin. The Washington Postcalled the novel "one of the major books to be published since World War II." City of Night's impact went way beyond book review pages: Jim Morrison intoned its title in the Doors' "L.A. Woman," and rocker David Bowie, painter David Hockney, and director Van Sant have all spoken of its inspiration. Van Sant, in fact, says he gave Rechy's book to Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, his street hustlers from Private Idaho. "I gave them both City of Night and said: 'If you want to know the life of a street hustler, this is the place to start.' Later, I found that Keanu had bought all of John's other books."