The greatest prose writer in L.A. lives among the lizards and lemon trees at the efflorescence of the Hollywood Hills. In a Beachwood Canyon backyard in perennial bloom, you find 84-year-old John Rechy, perpetual hustler in partial hermitage.
The arthritic decay of age is relatively modest. His former Fabian-esque pompadour has softened into an amber tuft. Thick plastic frames harness his deteriorating vision. But his memory remains immutable. His muscles are regularly honed by workouts at his home gym. His tongue stays barbed. His word processor keeps busy.
“The novel I'm writing now is a mixture of everything I've done before; mystery, horror, romance — everything and anything,” he says. “I even proclaim comics as a major influence.”
His 1963 debut, City of Night, furnished the El Paso–raised son of Mexican immigrants with literary immortality. Even if you've never read it, odds are you've heard its title bellowed by Jim Morrison in “L.A. Woman.” Norman Mailer and James Baldwin heralded the young author. Ken Kesey came calling during his original acid-test sweep through Texas.
“I thought it was a prank because I didn't even know that the bus existed,” Rechy laughs. “So I told him over the phone, 'Listen, don't call again. You just woke me up from a nap.'”
Rechy's combustible subject matter awakened critics' rancor. A missing link between Midnight Cowboy and On the Road, the book explored the sexual wayfaring and emotional ruptures of his early adult life. David Hockney and Gus Van Sant later proclaimed Rechy a major influence.
But the rampant homophobia of the period led to frequent denunciations. The New York Review of Books panned City of Night with the headline “Fruit Salad.” Rumors spread that Rechy didn't exist. Imposters usurped his identity.
“I read about them in columns,” Rechy remembers amidst the splendor of the aerie that he's shared for the last decade with his longtime partner, Michael Ewing, a producer whose credits include Tommy Boy, the Naked Gun sequels and Anger Management. A curved balustrade recalls Mae West vamping down the stairs. Blown-up B&W portraits of old Hollywood starlets adorn the walls.
“I was said to be in Fire Island as the guest of a man,” Rechy recalls. “But I'd never even been to Fire Island.” A stranger in Rochester, New York (where he'd also never been), claimed that Rechy had given him VD. The health department threatened arrest unless Rechy took a test. He hired a lawyer and ultimately verified a clean bill of health, but the scars remained.
After a long trip to the Caribbean, Rechy eventually settled in Los Angeles. Many more books followed, as did teaching stints at Occidental College and USC. Up until recently, he conducted regular writing workshops, whose alumni include novelist-poet Kate Braverman and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham.
“It's a strange thing that happens when one book comes and takes over,” Rechy says. “I've written 16 books, and the one that continues to be known is the first one. I don't mind, but I've written so many better ones. I was younger then and you learn — you learn a lot.”