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About My Life and the Kept Woman: A Memoir Hardcover – January 21, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Reflecting on his long life with a calm, clear eye, novelist Rechy (The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens) probes his nascent self-identity as a Mexican-American and a homosexual. Growing up during the Depression in El Paso, Tex., the youngest son of a Mexican woman who spoke no English and a Scottish musician father, Rechy recalls his early fascination with beauty, especially in his older adored sister, Olga, who married early, and in the cool, glamorous regard of the notorious kept woman of Mexican politician Augusto de Leon, Marisa Guzman, whom the young narrator glimpsed briefly and memorably at his sister's wedding. Moreover, amid a society that excoriated Mexicans, young Rechy grew into a beautiful, fair-skinned young man torn between feeling proud of his Mexican roots and shame because of them. Fleeing the restricted prospects of El Paso and the depressive rages of his father, Rechy, a budding writer, attended college, then joined the army during the Korean War and began traveling, to Paris, New York City and Los Angeles, where he found hustling for sex from anonymous men suited him. The memoir meanders through years of drifting among jobs and numerous sexual encounters, which became the fodder for his acclaimed City of Night (1963) and other works. Self-adulation aside, Rechy's memoir possesses many fine stylistic vignettes.
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"John Rechy doesn't fit into categories. He transcends them. His individual vision is unique, perfect, loving, and strong." "[Rechy] tells the truth, and tells it with such passion that we are forced to share in the life he conveys. This is a most humbling and liberating achievement."
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Rechy is matter of fact in his tone and unsparing of himself, even as he shows his bravado, as in his assertion to Alan Ginsburg that his body would always remain attractive. There is little analysis of his choice of hustling over going to Columbia University. Whether it was a matter of serendipity or something more is never discussed, perhaps if it were somehow predetermined and not to be questioned. When Rechy breaks through as a writer, recounting his experiences and the people he has met, he still easily moved back and forth between the writer's world and that of the butch, straight-identified hustler. Indeed, he takes the hustler role to a new place by developing his body and entering the world of cruising, as well as hustling after publication of his first book. "City of Night" was a departure from the more gentile and subdued work of gay writers who came before him, and the kind of middle class college boy coming of age stories that dominated in the years that came later. Even as he emerged as a gay writer, Rechy had not really come to terms with his sexuality which made the graphic quality of his writing perhaps more important to understanding him.
I'm surprised the other reviews have been so positive. Rechy's work and life tend to elicit controversy. The self-loathing and limited view of his sexuality evident in the years covered by this book often seems unsympathetic to younger readers (at least in terms of their revies of his early work). OTOH, the frankness of the sexuality and Rechy's involvement in a sexual underworld disturbs those who want to see their sexuality "normalized". Unlike the sort of middle class gay writing that began to emerge around the time of "The Sexual Outlaw", Rechy comes from a far more marginalized place, in terms of class and ethnicity. Like many characters in contemporary gay writing, he is a sensitive boy who seeks books and learning and emerges as a gay man in a flood of sexual encounters. Unlike them, he entered his sexuality as a hustler and, even as a published writer, was treated as a hustlerish plaything by wealthy prominent men who were often deeply closeted--sometimes this was cultivated by him, sometimes not. When David Leavitt gave the book a lacerating review in the NY Times, he did it by attacking the narcissism and double standard of Rechy's early life and through a schoolmarmish analysis of his prose (both Rechy & Leavitt teach creative writing at universities). Leavitt notes the circumstances of Rechy's early life but misses the place that this left for Rechy in much the manner of a sheltered, somewhat clueless middle class boy and Leavitt no doubt feels uncomfortable with a former hustler playing his game as an academic. Rechy treats his own narcissism and double standard in a very direct, unapologetic way that is very different from the self-absorption of characters drawn by writers like Leavitt. So, this is a book for people who are not looking for contemporary gay lit, but willing to deal with something that may seem, at once, dated and more forthright. There's been more to Rechy, including a long-term relationship (that emerged from his hustling, of all things), so hopefully there will be another memoir in the future.
For anyone with knowledge of San Francisco, the narrative has a surprising twist with the late Herb Caine (the famous columnist) and one of his several wives. She is not the "kept woman" in Rechy's memoir but the lady's niece. Like Rechy, this woman is a character of reinvention and masquerade.
Here is a moving, powerful story of a life that is witness to some of the most unruly changes of the past century. Booming with intense individuality and complete frankness, it is as much a study of intolerance as of a human being who rebelled against it to create his own very unique path.
The great thing about Rechy and the last thing you can say is that he's predictable. If you attempted to sell his life as a TV Movie or film pitch to hackneyed Hollywood they would say: "there's no basis on reality and who do we root for?" Mr. Producer: we root for John Rechy! He drops out of an Ivy League university to become a male hustler and turn it into the tour de force "City of Night" which became a major best seller, one of the most influential American novels according to Gore Vidal and then Rechy goes onto to be the first novelist to be honored by a lifetime achievement award from PEN. This is a life so filled with awakenings and discoveries that it is anything but convention and contracts deeply with the clichéd debris we see on TV and at the movies.
So be impulsive, never predictable, and order "About My Life and the Kept Woman" now. It is a must read and belongs on every bookshelf along with all of John Rechy's unpredictable works.
With fierce vulnerability and brave delicacy, his memoir About My Life and the Kept Woman depicts his poor childhood in El Paso's Mexican enclave; years in the numbing U.S. Army; life as a street hustler; and - always - of the alluring woman who intrigues, and then shadows his life, for forty years. Here is how he first encounters the Kept Woman at his sister's wedding:
"When my head resisted being turned away from the kept woman, my mother's hands directed it back to the nuptials, but not before I knew that my life had been invaded by an awesome presence."
The memoir takes its rightful place alongside Proust (an influence) and the best works of speculative fiction.
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About my life and the kept woman is the remarkable adventure of a man choosing a life-so colorful-on the strength...Read more
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