Appreciating Rechy’s Depth
To the Editor:
My impression of Raymond-Jean Frontain’s review of Understanding John Rechy [in the May-June 2020 issue]is that he does not understand John Rechy. Like most cursory reviewers, he focuses on the surface of Rechy’s narcissism, the unending sexual adoration required by the young Rechy, and such thinly veiled autobiographical characters as Johnny Rio in Numbers. But focusing only on the sex fails to get underneath it, to the human needs and drives motivating it. That’s where Rechy has been surgically precise in his understanding of the deeper forces driving sexual and other behavior.
Dismissing Rechy’s most recent novel, After the Blue Hour, by claiming that it “exasperates by its self-indulgence” misses, for one, the artistry of Rechy’s writing and storytelling as he slowly, teasingly, deliciously, builds the tension between the two male characters to the point that an explosive (and extremely well-written) sex scene is inevitable.
But again, to focus only on the fact that it is a sexual denouement misses Rechy’s stunning ability to get inside the minds—to see the world through the eyes—of characters as diverse as Amalia Gomez and Johnny Rio. Rechy’s compassion for his characters, many of them modeled after people he knew, comes through in every one of his books. I’ve never read another writer as precociously wise about loneliness and alienation as was the 32-year-old John Rechy in his 1963 debut novel City of Night, written through the eyes of a young male hustler in the late 1950s.
There are plenty of rewards—besides Rechy’s spare, poetic writing—for
pushing past the narcissism that Frontain references, and even past the never-gratuitous sex. These include deeper truths about human beings and the complexities that drive people toward and away from each other, among others.
John-Manuel Andriote, Norwich, CT
I applaud John-Manuel Andriote’s eloquent defense of John Rechy’s novels. The warmth of his testimony heightens my regret that whereas I once approached Rechy’s work with a similar ardor, my appreciation of it has diminished from rereading to rereading.
But I am moved to know that MrRechy’s novels continue to reward such an intelligent reader as his letter reveals Mr. Andriote to be.
Raymond-Jean Frontain, Conway, AR
More Songs of “Unsung Heroes”
To the Editor:
Readers who were as intrigued as I was by Andrew Lear’s article “Beck’s List” (May-June 2020), about gay Holocaust survivor and hero Gad Beck, might be interested to know that the story of Gad and his love Manfred Levin, who died with his family at Auschwitz, has been eloquently and movingly told in music by renowned American opera composer Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, etc.) and librettist Gene Scheer.
Scheer based his story in part on the documentary film Paragraph 175 (directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) and on the journal of Manfred Levin at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Heggie and Scheer’s work is called For a Look or a Touch, and it exists in a version for male chorus (which many gay men’s choruses have performed) and as a song cycle for baritone, as well as a chamber opera. A commercial recording is available on Naxos, and there are several video clips of the choral and opera versions on YouTube.
Gad and Manfred are not forgotten.
Clifford (Kip) Cranna, San Francisco
To the Editor:
In light of your issue on “Unsung Heroes” (May-June 2020), and the fact that two heroes were gay Germans who were out in the Nazi era, it is probably no coincidence that the idea of homosexual rights was born in Germany, in the 19th century. One of the first champions of gay rights in the Western world, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895)—himself an unsung hero—was a German lawyer and writer who advocated freedoms for “Urnings” (“Uranians” in English), his word for homosexual men.
Starting in the 1860s, Ulrichs spoke and wrote from his own experience in law school, where his same-sex liaisons felt natural to him—a century before Stonewall. He spoke out publicly for homosexual rights in 1867 when he addressed the Congress of German Jurists, asking them to repeal laws banning homosexuality. Shouted down by the gathered jurists, his legal reasoning was sound then and still holds up today.
A prolific writer of essays gathered into self-published pamphlets such as “Araxes: A Call To Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law,” he was pilloried and fired from a number of German state positions as he moved around Germany defending his cause. Imprisoned briefly for opposing Prussian rule over his native Hanover, he fled Germany in the late 1870s to live in Naples for the remainder of his life. He continued to write on gay rights and other
legal matters, often publishing at his own expense.
Late in life Ulrichs wrote: “Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the specter which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”
Largely forgotten until the 1980s, his writings came to renewed attention as LGBT scholars and others began to investigate a history that had long been forgotten or suppressed. Today there are streets named for Ulrichs in Berlin, Munich, Hanover, and Bremen, Germany.
Joe Ryan, Colchester, VT
In the January-February 2020 issue, a review of Michael Nava’s Carved in Bone incorrectly stated that the protagonist’s lover was lost to AIDS. Instead, he was murdered.