After the Blue Hour
John Rechy
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After the Blue Hour
John Rechy
Grove Press
224 pages
February 2017
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Part autobiography, part literary fiction, Rechy’s novel is a provocative exploration of his personal history and sexual motivation. It cuts close to the bone in the way that it illustrates the power of lust. While the plot may be familiar to a lot of readers, the beauty of the writing and the complexity of Rechy’s themes are astonishing. In 1960, Rechy is a young man, still fresh from his experiences working as a street hustler in Los Angeles. Seeking to escape a life that has become an entanglement of anonymous sexual encounters, John accepts an invitation from letter writer Paul Wagner to join him, his mistress, Sonya, and his 14-year-old son, Stanty, for a summer on Paul’s private island.

Rechy jumps at the opportunity, determined (at least for a time) to play the role of the emphatic and strained “masculine type.” Handsome, seductively tanned Paul offers John up a hearty welcome, intent to question his new friend about his writing (“this camouflage of fiction”) and impart his own shifting opinions about literature. Young, virile and impressionable John--always enthralled by appearances--is naturally attracted to Paul who has a body “like that of a swimmer.” John is also surprisingly attracted to Stanty, who has the ingratiating smile of a young boy about to welcome a new friendship.

Sonya is of a similarly agreeable disposition, arranging dinners and breakfasts and canoeing trips on the picaresque lake where the spectacular beauty of the island offers remedy for whatever troubles might exist underneath this gorgeous facade of beauty and privilege. Sonya cuts an astounding figure, a “burnished silhouette in the sunset” with only a slight French accent. John notices how Sonya’s face matches the beauty of her body; Paul seems to react to his mistress as if she was “on exhibition.” Like most vacations, there’s a sense of unique camaraderie as Paul and Stanty begin to indulge in a game of their own. The early days are filled with unexpected intimacy and a shared admiration for many of the books that fill the shelves of the house, books that John himself has read and admired. Meanwhile, two gray figures emerge, leaving as soundlessly as they appear. The ghostly figures, Paul’s housekeepers, add to John’s momentary sense that there’s something unreal in this house that seems to float on a private island miles away from the nearest village.

Rechy moves between the differing sexual dynamics of his characters as they wrestle with what it means to love and desire someone or something. Time drifts by without demarcation as Rechy finds himself increasingly seduced by the scantiness of his new friends’ daily clothing. From the “small gasps of heat” to the camaraderie of its inhabitants, the island itself appears determined to go unnoticed in its “intrinsic sense of abandon.” Beyond her “silent command of composure,” Sonya roams the island in her misty creations “like a beautiful dark butterfly.” John notices Stanty reveling in his developing body as he swims endlessly and rows far and wide along the lake, ostensibly obsessed with the “blue hour” the mysterious time of the day just before sunset.

John is repelled at Paul’s seeming indifference to cruelty, but he’s strangely attracted to Paul’s stories about Elizabeth and Corina, the previous women in his life. He claims to have had a “sexual power” over them: they were his “willing victims.” Yet his harsh vulgarity over the women he reportedly once loved begins to disturb John (and Sonya). As the once-predictable summer adventure threatens to unravel, Paul’s degrading, perverse nature steadily reveals itself. As Paul recounts his own intimacies, he demands to hear about John’s sexual experiences: the streets he prowled at midnight, the sex in the dark alleyways, and the hurried encounters in squashed rented rooms. Abruptly, Paul forces John to confront his own turbulent childhood in El Paso--his father’s abuse, his mother’s protection, and his own acceptance of his sexuality.

“I feel a fierce sexual yearning tinged with meanness and something unrecognized.” That quote comes to symbolize the latter half of the novel. Events take a subversive turn, building to an orgiastic climax of sadistic flesh. The novel is symbolically gorgeous, from the clouds that gather over a frail moon to a misty shroud cast over a forsaken, neighboring island. The mystery behind the deadly fire on the abandoned island (and Stanty’s obsession with it) adds another layer of conspiracy to John’s vision. Soon enough, the valuable days of familiarity are hijacked by “a dark shadow within the hot black night” and the demands of Elizabeth, who for reasons of her own, suddenly arrives on the island, determined to exact her revenge on Paul.

After the Blue Hour is about following desire and the consequences and triumphs that come from doing so. Although the graphic sex scenes might be too much for some readers, their explicit eroticism is essential to the power of the narrative. This is typical John Rechy: the repressed sexual yearning; the helpless arousal; the lustful kisses that draw blood; and a desire that fully encompasses John as he lands on this island of extremes and is unsuspectingly placed into the orbit of a man who has mastered the power of manipulation over those who surround him.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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