After the Blue Hour by John Rechy is a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards so I decided to give it a try. Each year, I try and read as many as the finalists as possible.
This book particularly caught my eye as I’ve read some of Rechy’s earlier works City of Night and Numbers in the late 70’s think.
Set in the 1960’s, the story follows a 24-year-old writer named John Rechy who is received a letter from a fan — Paul Wagner – who, after having read some of Rechy’s work, invites him to spend the summer on his private island along with his sensual mistress Sophia and his very strange — if not creepy — 14-year-old son Stanty (who’s real name is Constantine).
A good part of the book revolves exploring the sexual dynamics between John and Paul via conversation. These intellectual discussions often devolve into the retelling of past sexual encounters (mostly consisting of Paul sharing hateful memories about his exes). There are times, however, when it sometimes seems as though the two men are attempting to mask sexual desires.
The conversations take some strange turns especially when Paul attempts to draw John out into discussions of the inherent nature of evil and cruelty and seems to try to get John to admit his own innate cruelty and the pleasure he receives from exercising his power over others.
It doesn’t take us too long to figure out that Paul is not only a master manipulator who wormed his way into money through marriage and divorce. It’s also clear that he loves to indulge in power plays and mind games, especially darker ones, and that he may also be a very dangerous man.
The story is told from Rechy’s point of view and throughout these conversations, we learn of the protagonist’s contempt for both Paul and his potentially mentally unhinged son, which only increases as the days pass on the island. The only positive portrayals are found in descriptions of Sonya’s beauty and as with the others on the island, there is more to Sonya than meets the eye as well.
WHAT I LIKED
This book really tickled my bibliophile bone as books play a large part in the story. John spends the majority of his time Paul’s vast library browsing through books by classical authors, and much of the discussion the two men have on the deck revolves around literature.
There was also the mystery surrounding a book entitled “The Origins of Evil” which was deliberately left out in the library for John to find, but then subsequently disappeared, only to reappear again later on in John’s room.
I also liked the device the author uses of blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, by using his own name — John Rechy — as the main character and including his own biographical data.
In fact, Rechy refers to the book as “A True Fiction” and I believed at one point in the book he referred to his writing as autobiographical fiction. Whether it means that the story is fiction with a few autobiographical elements thrown in, or whether the novel is autobiography but some overly exaggerated truths is up to the reader to determine.
If I recall, Rechy also says something to the fact that: all fiction is autobiographical, and all autobiographies are fiction.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
Though Stanty was a bit strange, the reader also got the feeling of possible neglect and abuse as the hands of his distant, manipulating father, which may explain some of the boy’s strange behavior.
I disliked the extreme misogynistic views of Paul, and his excessively vulgar misogynistic rants became tiresome and offensive after awhile.
The first time he let loose with one of his rants it succeeded in providing shock value and adding a grittiness to the story. But these repeated tirades lost their effectiveness and provoked disgust at the continued usage of his hate speech.
Because of the bitter feelings of the Island’s owner toward woman (including his mistress) and our protagonist’s ever-growing dislike for his hosts, I found the atmosphere of the novel growing more and more toxic as I progressed through it.
There was a feeling of seediness to it that kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.
Truth be told, I didn’t like any of the characters, including the protagonist John Rechy, so it’s difficult to have positive feelings about a novel when I felt that none of the characters where deserving of those feelings. They were not only damaged and messy, but I found them wholly unlikeable and completely unrelatable. Especially Paul — I him to be a vile human being.
I was only about 50 pages from the end of it and I thought about throwing in the towel and bailing on it. But I figured I was so close to the end and had stuck it out this far, I needed to finish it. Plus I was hoping that this “huge climax” which was promised at the end of the book would be worth it. It wasn’t. The big event was more cruel and degrading, rather than climatic and explosive, in my humble opinion.
There is no doubt that Rechy is a master at turning a phrase and this novel was no exception. It was beautiful written and evocative in places — and excessively vulgar and graphic in others.
That being said, it did contain elements of suspense, intrigue, love, desire mystery, and human relationships but most of this was presented through the guise of conversation between the sundeck and the bar.
In other words, not a whole heck of a lot happens in the book. The characters were interesting, especially once their backgrounds were revealed and so was the setting, but I don’t feel that there was a lot here that will stick with me now that I’ve closed the last page.
Additionally, the novel does take the reader into some pretty dark, gritty and uncomfortable places, which may be difficult for some people. And because of the continued hate speech and near pornographic actions of the characters, I found the novel difficult to read as I related less and less to the characters and to the story.
So I would have to say that this book was not for me and I ended up giving it 2 stars.