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Black Magic Realism: John Rechy’s First Novel

JOHN RECHY IS BEST KNOWN for his groundbreaking 1963 novel City of Night, which burst on the scene with its bebop prose sketching the street life of a sought-after but elusive “youngman” on the make. Much of the book is reportedly autobiographical. Yet, while City of Night was Rechy’s literary debut, it wasn’t his first novel. That was Pablo! — which has finally been published, 70 years after the 18-year-old Rechy wrote it.

Early manuscripts tend to be interesting only for the glimpses they provide of the brilliance to come. That’s not the case with Pablo! Here, the writing is already mature, and the story told is captivating. Themes Rechy will return to again and again in subsequent works are boldly developed. Rechy submitted the novel to publishers at the time, but it met with rejection. Perhaps the controversial religious themes, the overtones of incest and pederasty, the witchcraft and animal possession, were just too startling to absorb. Rechy reached out to Nobel Prize–winning novelist Pearl S. Buck, who wrote back saying that, while she had “no doubt that you’re talented, […] from the sample you sent me, I don’t believe I could help you in your writing.”

Meanwhile, Rechy found a publisher for City of Night. While it’s not unheard of for an author to release a spurned earlier effort after achieving some success, Rechy decided to hold Pablo! back. By one account, he did not want to be seen as capitalizing on the popular response to City of Night. Another account suggests that he was concerned the novel might be dismissed as juvenilia. Whatever the reasons, the manuscript languished in Rechy’s archive, unnoted even by scholars of the author, until 2014. That year, Rechy won the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature given by UC Santa Barbara. During his acceptance speech, he mentioned the existence of Pablo!, striking the interest of literary critic and UCSB Professor Francisco A. Lomelí. Lomelí encouraged Rechy to finally publish the novel, facilitated the publication process, and wrote an analysis that is included as an afterword in the Arte Publico Press edition.

The reason Lomelí was taken by Rechy’s account of Pablo! is because the author seemed to be describing a previously unknown foray into magic realism. In that form of writing, elements of the fantastic are interwoven with realistic representations. The modern genre can be traced back to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), but the term was not coined until 1955, when it was used to describe the writings of several Latin American authors, such as Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Asturias. Asturias’s masterpiece Men of Maize, which borrows liberally from Mesoamerican legends, was published in 1949 — the same year, as Lomelí notes, that Rechy finished Pablo! Given the bleak darkness of Rechy’s novel, the author has perhaps carved out his own new niche — call it “Black Magic Realism.”

The characters are all from an ancient race, descendants of the Mayans and different from “the Mexicans,” whom Rechy refers to as “the new race.” Three stories repeat and weave braid-like through the book: the Mayan moon longing for the sun, the beautiful yet poisonous girl who lures men to their doom, and the clash of the stone-faced god of the rural Indians with the Catholic God of the Mexican people — two warring deities who might be one and the same, after all. Rechy shifts time and place to tell the tale of a boy who cannot love, of the sorceries of his mother, of the disquieting effect he has on those he meets, and of the Mayan girl who obsessively seeks him, just as the weeping moon seeks its lover sun.

In Pablo!, the distinctions between the real, the magical, and the mythical blur, coalescing into a hallucinatory whole. A girl turns into a flower, faces laugh and taunt without moving, a body leaves its head to wander during the night with animals that are restless souls of the dead. There is magic in the world, and it bodes ill.

Just as the distinctions between the real and the magical are blurred, so the distinction between Mayan and Mexican becomes ultimately unimportant. Both peoples are heir to the same sin, and each individual member of the race is doomed to repeat that sin, damning their children to the same fate. All the while, the Mayan god and the god of the Mexicans remain so similarly unresponsive to human misery that they might as well be one. In this world, there is no mention of redemption, and certainly not of salvation. The only thing a man or woman can hope for is some measure of happiness — and afterward, perhaps, vindication. As Rechy writes:

[B]ecause in another life that spirit, then in a body, had, like the man my father but unvindicated, found an individual happiness in the small world of self, which is evil, because only god is omnipotent and all those like us must toil forever until death and then the soul will be cleansed and it shall return to the god who is both the god of the Catholic people who have come with images of the saints and the god too of the ancient people, which is the sun …

In Pablo!, men and women, generation after generation, choose a brief happiness in that “small world of self” — and soon regret their choices. The characters are doomed to the same inevitable fate. They might as well be archetypes, and so they are: the main characters are known simply as the man, the boy, the woman. Pablo is the only person named in the book, and only at the end. Shouting his own name is his declaration of intent to be the exception, the one who breaks free from all that has come before him.

In this and other ways, Pablo appears to share autobiographical details with the author. Indeed, the novel could be considered a highly allegorical account of Rechy’s life, anticipating his more obviously autobiographical novels, such as City of Night and Numbers (1967), and his straightforward memoir About My Life and the Kept Woman (2003). Pablo is the lithe boy with the desperate eyes who seeks and seeks; he is a character we find over and over in Rechy’s later fiction and in his memoirs. Like Rechy, Pablo is a storyteller who fictionalizes elements of his life. He mesmerizes villagers with tales of his beautiful mother and the mirrored palace where they lived; he also tells of the father who beat her out of jealousy for the love she gave to Pablo. These are clear reflections of Rechy’s own parents: his beautiful, loving mother, with whom he was very close, and his distant, frustrated, often angry father. When the villagers ask what became of the beautiful woman, Pablo quietly says that she was taken away in a black box. With this admission, the magic of the tale is destroyed, and the people chase him from the village.

The story abruptly shifts to the doomed girl who falls in unrequited love with Pablo. But Pablo has no desire for love: he tells the girl that their relationship is a lie, in order to drive her away. What he seeks is a different way, a way out; his aspiration — in yet another echo of the author’s life — is for a form of experience he assumes can only be found somewhere else. In his memoirs, Rechy emphasizes that he repeatedly sought ways to escape from El Paso — through reading (he mentions Paul Bowles and Federico García Lorca), through acting in his father’s company, even through writing a letter to Shirley Temple seeking a position as her dance partner. Pablo also imagines gaining fame and admiration for his dancing. When he shouts his own name, it is less a declaration of an autonomous self than a plea for others to recognize him as an individual. He needs recognition in order to live, to break away from his sad and alienated childhood.

In his memoir, Rechy writes of how, as a young man, he came across a misplaced tome on Mayan legends when combing through books on theater production. He was fascinated by the tale of the sun and the moon before the creation of the world: the moon, desperately in love with the sun, weaves gauzy bridal veils of clouds upon which to join with her lover (in Pablo!, Rechy describes them as ethereal “hammocks”); but the sun’s day-breaking brilliance drives the moon away, and the moon is only able to catch yearning glimpses of the indifferent, dazzling sun. In Rechy’s retelling, Pablo is the sun, the object of worshipful love, first from the girl, later from a rich patron, identified only as the man with the crumbling face. He rejects both, one insensitively and the other out of fear, knowing he is incapable of reciprocating their love.

Rechy will represent himself in a similar way over and over again, in his later fiction and in his autobiography. In City of Night, he is the self-contained hustler, aloof from the people who desire him. In Numbers, Johnny Rio compulsively seeks validation by counting the many men he attracts while never reciprocating. In About My Life and the Kept Woman, he relates how Allen Ginsberg challenged him to recognize the psychology of wanting to be desired. Ginsberg, the blunter of the two, spoke of the power of the receiving partner, the power of attracting such attention.

In Pablo!, Rechy already intuits that this possible way out — through the recognition of the other — might just be a different path to “the small world of self,” the shared sin of the ancient people and the new race. The story ends with the boy Pablo screaming wordlessly as he destroys his own image in a mirror. He has danced and danced, but has been answered not with the applause he seeks but with silence and indifference. And thus this magical black diamond of a tale cataclysmically shatters into a million glittering shards.

¤

Marilyn Macron is a graduate of New York University and Fordham University School of Law. She is a practicing attorney, voracious reader, and book collector. She promotes reading and events as The Literary Chick™ (www.theliterarychick.com).

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