Once upon a time, gay Americans were better known as homosexuals — or by less clinical, more insulting names. In those days, John Rechy could find the time of day from his tricks, but not from the literary establishment. But during lifetime, Rechy has moved from precocious El Paso child to male hustler to writer to college professor to icon.
The line from there to here, then to now, is the subject of Charles Casillo’s biography Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy. And through no fault of Casillo’s, that line is not so clear.
Casillo has crafted a fairly straight-forward, chronological telling of Rechy’s life to date — a simplified approach that’s fortunate for the reader, as Rechy is a complicated creature.
While so many lives follow a simple path from point A to point B, from birth to death, Rechy’s was much less predictable. Fans of Rechy’s early works, such as City of Night and Numbers, surely see him as the leather clad stud who introduced a naÃ¯ve America to its homo-deviant underbelly. His university students have seen him as a skilled, nurturing mentor. Rechy’s mother saw him, as Casillo writes it, as her golden boy. Rechy, at times, has been all these things.
Rechy has published twelve novels, tempted jail to enjoy his sexuality, and received prestigious literary awards. His unapologetic writing about his sexual explorations in America’s back alleys and back rooms challenged a nation’s status quo.
With nearly seven decades under his belt, there’s no doubt Rechy has played a sweeping role in shaping what it means to be gay in the modern world. When the final score has been calculated, we will surely find that both as a writer and as a gay man, Rechy had a greater impact on the world than it had on him.
From the start readers know that Casillo’s research for Outlaw is thorough. The story starts in Mexico at the dawn of the twentieth century, delving into personal history to give readers insight into Rechy’s family tree, full of drama and tragedy.
Rechy enters the pages of his biography with the stage set. Despite what any reader might think about Rechy before picking up Outlaw — narcissistic, arrogant, pioneering — Casillo’s delineation of his life commands compassion. Casillo follows Rechy from his childhood with an abusive father and an adoring, victimized mother, through his El Paso adolescence. We begin to recognize the Rechy we know when Outlaw arrives at the young Rechy who experiments with prostitution and creative writing. But after Casillo’s thorough prehistory he’ll never look quite the same.
The name “John Rechy ” conjures images like his protagonist, Johnny Rio. There is leather, there is sex, there is cold masculinity. While Rechy would be the first to explain how he has personified these elements, Casillo gives him his due as a great American writer, a devilishly charming man of letters.
While he still looks damn good, the fantasy hawk seeking his chicken is fading into the ether. With Casillo’s book, he’ll disappear just a little further. When Rechy was fictionalizing his sexual odysseys through the underground, he sang solo. For the generations of gay men who read these tales, Rechy was not just a writer. He was also the fantasy.
Outlaw gives more depth to Rechy the man, but there is no way to do that without taxing Rechy the fantasy. Still, with the empathy and respect Casillo’s elicits, some enamored readers may even want to send notes of apology:
“Dear John Rechy, Reading about your humanity made you a sympathetic character. Don’t worry, I still think you’re hot. ”