ABOUT MY LIFE AND THE KEPT WOMAN by John Rechy
356 pp $24.00
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney
We construct our identities from bits and pieces, from half-understood memories and fragments of old snapshots. As the young John Rechy cruised the streets of New York, and the parks of Los Angeles, looking for anonymous male trade - as he chronicled the life of the hustlers and drag queens he lived among in his crisp journalistic novels of the Sixties - he built for himself an identity that was butch and Anglo.
Yet he was always haunted by the Mexican sister-in-law that he glimpsed for a melodramatic moment at a family wedding from which she had been excluded as a woman of immoral life. Far more than from girls he dated in high school and college, or his sensible pragmatic sister, the eternal feminine that he constructed to measure his masculinity against was this single glimpse of a disowned woman of mystery, with a carefully gesturing cigarette.
Part of the point of Marisa Guzman's role in Rechy's personal mythology was that she represented not only the feminine he had excluded, but the Mexican. Son of a Scots musician father and a Mexican mother, Rechy grew up in a Forties and Fifties America in which to be Mexican was to be as much a despised Other as to be Black, or gay. He was truthful enough to acknowledge his identities to himself, but prudently dishonest enough to pass whenever it was possible.
In El Paso, at high school, he would lie about his address so that class mates would not know he lived in the wrong part of town. Part of the strength of this memoir is that Rechy revisits much of the material of his early novels, putting back in those matters and ambiguities that a habitual bad faith had made him leave out.
Bad faith, though, is a way, a harsh way, of describing the performance and construction of identity, an issue central to Rechy's work - without that bad faith he could not, perhaps, have sold those novels of street life, or made them so memorable. He always celebrated what he excluded - some of the most memorable sections of 'City of Night' are those in which he portrays not the surly boys and muscle men, but the glittering drag queens he affected to despise, but admired as fellow artists.
He knew that the macho pose of untouchability was as much a performance, a piece of drag, as the screaming camp of queens like Miss Destiny, and also equally a way of being real. The crisp prose of Rechy's accounts is nowhere near as artless as it seems; there has always to be a solid layer of pretense in the creation of anything real.
He parallels his own self-creation both as male whore and as writer with the self-reinvention of Isabel, the kept woman's niece and his schoolfellow. Isabel is more radical even than John in the way she reinvents herself as Spanish rather than Mexican, severing family ties in order to make a good marriage. Yet in the end, and Rechy expects us to pay moralizing attention here, the lies catch up with her, the repressed returns; this is perhaps one of the more unreliable bits of this memoir, a moment when the films of Douglas Sirk take over from the reality of what happened.
He never quite confronts her, but he does help betray her; significantly, he never takes her story further than the final collapse of her dream. There is a sense in which the mythicized women in Rechy's life can never have autonomous fates, can only be secret sharers of his own self- exploration.
This fragmentary memoir - with its vignettes of a predatory Christopher Isherwood and an Allen Ginzberg who saw through Rechy enough to mock him - is at its best when talking about his creation of a role for himself, a role which became the affect he explored in his work as much as the commodity he sold on the streets. Sometimes, clients confused the hustler not with the writer, but with the mythic male pinups he had written about - Johnny Rio in 'Numbers' for example. He is often sardonic at his own expense - it was not him and the other young men who sold hypermasculinity, but the queens they and their clients affected to despise, who started the riots that created Gay Liberation.
In more recent work, Rechy has explored the other area of bad faith in his early life - his Mexican family and his disappointed, abusive father. At times, here, he skirts the material of the misery memoir - his father taught him to appreciate music, and bought the typewriter on which he wrote his early work, but also handed him around to be groped by the male friends with whom he played cards. Or was it mere asexual tickling? Rechy knows that memory is unreliable enough that he can never be entirely sure.