the El Paso Times
complex offering provides plenty of twists
Special to the Times
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
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.
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 Rigoberto70@aol.com.