Monday, April 14, 2008

Rechy remembers

El Paso native's memoir intrigues despite warning

Book Review by Daniel Olivas

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times]

As a preface to his compelling new memoir, El Paso native John Rechy offers a two-line caveat:

"This is not what happened; it is what is remembered. Its sequence is the sequence of recollection."

In this day of scandalously false memoirs, it is certainly refreshing to read such words. But Rechy's story is, by now, well known to those who have read his critically acclaimed 1963 autobiographical novel, City of Night, which caused a literary sensation in part because of its subject matter: male prostitution, or hustling, as Rechy calls it.

In the new book, About My Life and the Kept Woman (Grove Press, $24 hardcover), Rechy revisits many of the events that wound up in that first novel and in subsequent novels -- but with an overarching theme to assist him in explaining decisions that led to a seemingly contradictory life of literature and sex-for-hire.

That theme is the "kept woman" of the title, the glamorous Marisa Guzman, mistress of the rich and powerful Mexican politician Augusto de Leon. It seems that Guzman's younger brother was engaged to Rechy's sister, Olga. Guzman had "conveyed her intention to travel from Mexico City and return to El Paso to attend her younger brother's wedding, thus challenging (her father), who had banished her years ago."

Intrigued by this alluring outsider, the young Rechy could barely contain himself when he caught a glimpse of the kept woman at the wedding reception. Throughout his memoir, Rechy repeatedly returns to this image of Guzman's defiant yet elegant appearance in the midst of those who were both fascinated and repulsed by her unashamed disregard for social norms.

Rechy struggled with his own outsider status, arising, in large part, from a mixed heritage as the son of a Mexican mother and a half-Scottish father.

Moreover, growing up in El Paso during the Depression and World War II, Rechy's budding sexuality and precocious literary tastes put him at odds with the socially conservative mainstream.

Rechy enlisted during the Korean conflict, which allowed him to travel in Europe while avoiding actual combat. After a two-year stint, he began his wanderings (and hustling) in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles. But he kept alive the desire to express himself through the written word, a desire he possessed from a young age. He eventually wrote fictionalized accounts of his life as a hustler that appeared in a small but prestigious literary journal. These shockingly honest stories resulted in his first book deal.

In the memoir, Rechy tries to explain why he became a hustler. At one point, he turns to a vague and uncertain memory of sexual abuse at the hands of his father and father's male friends. But he pulls back and is unwilling (or more likely, unable) to give a definite justification.

As Rechy became more famous, he encountered other luminaries including, in one hilarious passage, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who told Rechy to "relax, take your clothes off." "Why?" asked Rechy. Ginsberg answered: "Because you said you'd never grow undesirable. I hope that is true, really. For now, I want to see your body when I know it's beautiful -- and then it will be so forever in my memory." Rechy declined to disrobe.

As one reads this book, Rechy's warning that his memoir "is not what happened; it is what is remembered" often comes to mind. Whether each word is the unvarnished truth is of no matter: Rechy's life has been remarkable by any standard.

With 45 years of publishing both fiction and nonfiction under his belt, Rechy continues to create memorable and vital works of literature that honestly explore the importance of creating one's own destiny.

Marisa Guzman would be proud.

◙ A special invitation from Andrew Tonkovich, host of Bibliocracy, heard each Monday, noon, on KPFK 90.7 FM (Los Angeles) and 98.7 (Santa Barbara):

Join me Monday (today) at noon for my interview of Helena Viramontes, author of the classic short story collection The Moths and a previous novel, Under the Feet of Jesus. She’ll read from and discuss her big, bold new novel Their Dogs Came with Them.

From Booklist: “In episodic vignettes, Viramontes follows the daughter of street preachers who is still reeling from a vicious assault; an androgynous, homeless female gang member who has lost her way since her brother left to fight in Vietnam; a group of teenage girls who support each other emotionally as they attempt to navigate between the danger of the mean streets and the old-fashioned discipline of their immigrant relatives; and a young woman who spends all her spare cash and time trying to care for and keep tabs on her mentally ill brother…those who are up for the ride may find that her emotionally raw novel reads, at times, like a crash course in survival strategies for those immersed in the despair and violence of the inner city.”

To get ready for this wonderful Bibliocracy interview, check out my La Bloga Q&A with Viramontes here.

And listen to Viramontes being celebrated on another public radio book show, Bookworm, hosted by Michael Silverblatt.

◙ Please join the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center as Laura E. Gómez discusses and signs her new book Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. In her book, Dr. Gómez traces the origins of Mexican Americans as a racial group in the United States by looking at the Mexican population in what is now New Mexico. She explores the construction of racial status from the perspectives of law, history, and sociology. Her visit is part of a national book tour. Dr. Gómez is a professor of law and American studies at the University of New Mexico. From 1994 through 2005, she held a joint faculty appointment at the UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Department of Sociology.

WHEN: Tuesday, April 15, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

WHERE: UCLA Young Research Library Presentation, Room 11348, 1st Floor.

A reception will follow the lecture.

For more information contact: (310) 206-9185.

For more information on this and other CSRC events, go here.

◙ The Department of Chicano/Latino Studies at University of California, Irvine, as part of its Colloquia Series 2007-2008, presents:

Max Benavidez

“Before and After Asco (Nausea): The Difference between Chicano Art, the Chicano Avant-Garde, and Contemporary 21st Century Latino Art”

Benavidez is the author of Gronk, a recent book on the renowned L.A. artist. His work has appeared in several anthologies including The Fight in the Fields (Harcourt Brace) and Distant Relations (Smart Art Press). He wrote the lead essay for Chicano Visions (Little Brown/Bulfinch) and co-authored Carlito’s Story and the award-winning Graciela’s Dream (Lectura Books). He’s a contributing editor to Bomb magazine, and a contributor to Ciudad magazine and the London-based Monocle. He was an essayist for the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to Art Issues. He currently directs the Polanco Fellowship for the California Latino Caucus Institute for Public Policy and is completing his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University under a Fellowship from the Ahmanson Foundation.

WHEN: Thursday April 17, 2008, 4:00 pm

WHERE: Cross Cultural Center

COST: Free and Open to the Public

For more information, please call (949)824-7180 or visit the Department’s webpage at

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres. ¡Lea un libro!

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