From the El Paso Times

Rechy's complex offering provides plenty of twists
Rigoberto González
Special to the Times

Rigoberto González

With a book cover simulating the leather binding and gilt titles of 18th century English novels, John Rechy's "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens" (Grove Press, $24 hardback) is an intriguing undertaking of the picaresque narrative in the tradition of Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett.

     Though the novel keeps true to a conventional structure with the use of descriptive episodic headings and illustrations suggesting engraved plates, Rechy's version of the insouciant rogue is a 20th-century Texas cowboy who learns early in his journey the word "empathy," which becomes his code of honor as he moves from one hilarious escapade to another in an uncertain search for the meaning of grace.

     Lyle Clemens is the illegitimate son of fallen beauty queen Sylvia Love. Of undetermined paternal heritage (quite possibly Mexican), Lyle grows up in tiny Río Escondido, too handsome and heroic for the small-town dramas, like the disconcerting probability that his high-school Chicana sweetheart, who develops a rivalry with Sylvia Love, might be his sister.

     To flee his beloved mother's alcohol-induced rages, Lyle joins an evangelical circus after he accidentally demonstrates "the preacher-strut" on stage. With his guitar in tow, Lyle goes West as "the Lord's Cowboy" with the Gathering of Souls, only to land amid the scheming Hollywood players, crazy Vegas charlatans and greedy pornographers too eager to exploit his innocent charms and striking virility.

     Lyle's willingness to engage in the various fantasy scenarios is his attempt at escapism as he reasons, "If he became someone else, at least for a while, wouldn't the pain of leaving lessen, wouldn't sad memories pester him less?" But each new encounter is a lesson in staying true to his instincts and to his maturing sense of morality.

     Throughout his journey, Lyle is haunted by his mother (who has never allowed him to call her anything but Sylvia), and by the ghost of his unknown father, the man who spurned Sylvia Love, thrusting her into a life-long depression. So Lyle gravitates toward a series of substitute mothers, like Clarita the midwife, Sister Matilda the gospel singer and Rose the town outsider, all of whom teach him viable life skills.

     As the novel comes to a close, Lyle has had plenty of practice exposing charades and deceptions that he can now confront the most frightening truths back in Río Escondido, where Sylvia Love guards fiercely the secrets of her past. These revelations will redeem the heartbroken woman and allow Lyle to look at Sylvia through the worldly eyes of a man as he understands that Sylvia has always loved him as her son.

     The touching ending to "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens" is a perfect finish to an outrageously funny sequence of plot twists that draw the reader into a satirical study of humanity as public performance. Comic and complex, Rechy's novel is a veritable handbook for survival in the contemporary age of sociopolitical masquerades and illusions.

Rigoberto González is an award-winning poet and writer based in New York City. His most recent publication is the novel "Crossing Vines." He may be reached at

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