Jones in Spurs
A Review of The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens
A Novel by John Rechy
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Sunday, October 5, 2003
324 pp., $24
John Rechy, rather like Henry Miller, is best known for
his depiction of raw and shocking sexuality and yet best
loved by some readers for his expression of a passion
so sublime that it approaches a state of rapture. He began
in 1963 with "City of Night," a book about the
sordid life of a gay street hustler, but he also gave
us, for example, "The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez,"
the tale of a poor middle-aged Mexican American woman
who is redeemed when she's granted a marvelous vision.
much anticipated new novel, "The Life and Adventures
of Lyle Clemens," is a potent compound of both sex
and rapture. Lyle is a beautiful and beguiling young man
who starts out as the child of star?crossed lovers in
a sleepy Texas town and ends up as "the Mystery Cowboy,"
an enigmatic figure who materializes among the lost souls
on Hollywood Boulevard. This remarkable story, as Rechy
tells it, is sly, smart, sexy and laugh-out-loud funny,
but it is also tinged with sorrow and ultimately elevated
into the realm of magic.
is born in 1982 in Rio Escondido, a Texas backwater whose
polarities are marked by the Billy the Kid Museum and
the Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Concern. His mother,
Sylvia Love, is a disappointed Chicana beauty queen and
his probable father, dubbed "Lyle Clemens the First,"
is a handsome but shiftless cowboy who makes love with
his boots on: "He'd take off his `walkin' boots,"
Rechy explains, "then all his clothes, and then he'd
put on the `love boots."' But Lyle's father abandons
his mother before he is born, and Lyle the Second grows
up with some very strange ideas about what it means to
love and be loved. "So marvelously strange,"
exults one of the women who falls under his spell, "so
is regarded as a groundbreaking gay novelist and appropriately
so, but the steamiest sex scenes in his new novel are
purely (and hotly) heterosexual. The bully at school may
call him a "fag," but Lyle discovers that he
possesses an uncanny power over women, whether young or
old, innocent or worldly. "Lyle detected the possibility
of sex," writes Rechy, "almost as if it were
a vapor he breathed." When he is wooed by an ardent
young woman named Maria, Lyle gallantly offers to convert
to Catholicism and marry her before availing himself of
her offer to surrender her virginity to him, but he needn't
have. “I’m a progressive woman,” she
says. “You don’t have to become Catholic first.
Let’s make love now.”
all, Rechy writes intimately and lovingly about women;
the female characters in "The Life and Adventures
of Lyle Clemens" are its real glory. At the book's
heart are Lyle's mother and maternal grandmother, one
an alcoholic flirt and the other a religious fanatic,
who struggle against each other literally unto death and
even beyond the grave. Equally compelling and considerably
more enchanting are the visionary Clarita, whom we see
as a young woman running away from Pancho Villa only to
run into the Virgin of Guadalupe; Rose, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold
who dutifully deflowers Lyle and then finds herself smitten
by him; and Maria, the girl who may or may not be Lyle's
one true love.
powerful is Lyle's uncalculating and unwitting allure,
in fact, that he stirs up various kinds of passion in
virtually everyone who beholds him. A band of crooked
evangelists recruits him to perform as "the Lord's
Cowboy" -- Lyle has inherited his grandmother's gift
of speaking in tongues -- and they take him from Texas
to Hollywood, where he catches the eye of (among others)
a husband-and-wife team of adult-film producers and a
fading actress looking to leverage herself into a comeback
role in a remake of "Valley of the Dolls." All
of this contributes to his pain and sorrow but also his
the face of God?" asks a man in a loincloth on the
Venice boardwalk. Lyle pays him the $20 he demands and
the old man hands him a picture: "tangles of lines
on a piece of paper, a harsh black X across it."
Moments later, however, the sight of the setting sun on
the Pacific horizon strikes Lyle as a revelation. "Was
there anything else this amazing?" he muses. "Beyond
that expanse of water and sky, what? Mysterious, beautiful,
secret. Like so much of what he was encountering in this
city of astonishment."
renders both the mean streets and the elegant watering
holes of contemporary Los Angeles with a wry and knowing
sense of humor. He reveals, for example, the curious function
of a "fiuffer" in the making an adult movie,
and he displays a sure grasp of the intricate and demanding
social rituals that must be observed while dining at Spago.
But he insists on casting Lyle in the role of a hopeless
(and sometimes clueless) romantic. When Lyle goes to the
rescue of a transvestite who has been set up by a pair
of gay-bashers outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, for
example, he acts as gallantly toward the man dressed up
in women's clothing as he did toward the fair young Maria.
"That's a pretty blue dress," says Lyle. ("Thank
you, it's della Robbia blue, my favorite," comes
how Lyle is connected to all the men and women in his
life cannot be revealed here, except to say that nothing
is ever quite what it seems, and the tale crackles with
twists and surprises to the very end. Indeed, the plotting
(and some of the characters) amounts to a homage to Henry
Fielding's "Tom Jones," but the magical realism
of Rechy's book owes nothing to the traditions of the
English novel. "Dios mio, why have you given us all
these strange mysteries?" asks Clarita, the clairvoyant
whose visions play such a crucial role in "The Life
and Adventures of Lyle Clemens." Many of the secrets
are revealed, but some are not. "Mystery should remain,"
explains Rechy, through the voice of Clarita. "It's
part of la vida."