In his new novel, After the Blue Hour (212 pages, Grove Press), John Rechy offers a hybrid erotica-mystery that he labels as “true fiction.” The author of seventeen books and praised by such great American writers as James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Gore Vidal, Rechy achieved literary fame with his first novel, the international bestseller City of Night, published in 1963. In his new novel, set in the ’60s, the narrator, a 24-year-old writer and ex-hustler also named John Rechy, receives an invitation to join an admiring fan, Paul Wagner, for the summer on his private island.
Upon arrival, John finds himself at a gorgeous yet strangely tense and mysterious paradise, alongside the extraordinarily rich and charismatic Paul, his soft-spoken mistress Sonja, and his relatively unstable 14-year-old son, Stanty. Here, in Gatsby-esque fashion, John spends each day in complete isolation with his new companions, sharing drinks, beliefs, and stories that come to reveal each character’s sense of moral depravity and grit.
As the first day comes to a close, the group looks out over the water eagerly as the sun sets, waiting for the “blue hour” in which a few seconds of blue light flashes from beyond the horizon. John explains the significance of this moment to his newly acquainted friends: “Some people claim that’s when everything reveals itself as it is…They say everything is both clearest and most obscure—a light that challenges perception, revealing and hiding.” In many ways, Rechy’s novel does just that.
Divvied up into unusually short chapters, the tale is character-driven. More specifically, the plot is carried along by the tension and intrigue manifested from shared divulgence as well as purposeful withholding of information. Centered on intense, yet carefully constructed dialogue and storytelling, John learns increasingly alarming information about his persuasive and alluring host. What pushes After the Blue Hour along is not necessarily the build-up of this information, but rather the cyclical, recursive way in which each episode of discovery or conflict is quickly forgotten and dropped by the island dwellers, allowing the energy to blaze then simmer within only a matter of paragraphs. In the same manner, as this pattern reoccurs throughout John’s stay, the reader, too, allows details and major moments of violence and sexual aggression to fall to the wayside. The effect is both extremely discomforting and exceptionally well executed.
In unexpected ways, Rechy catapults us into gut-wrenching, cringe-worthy scenes as we learn of Paul’s dark and seemingly evil thoughts surrounding women and the performance of sex as a means of gaining power. With references to all forms of artists, including A.A. Milne, Henry Miller, Bartók, Albert Camus, and Stravinsky, the most terrifying connection made is to a piece of non-existent literature, The Origin of Evil by V.K. Edelstein. A Bible or mantra of sorts for the characters within the novel, The Origin of Evil delves deep into the philosophical, marginalized musings of evil and, ultimately, how it can self-pollinize, develop, and spread among the human race. Touching on ideas that have become so relevant in today’s America, Rechy’s fictionalized attempt at “scholarizing” and defining the powers of corruption and immorality is beyond horrifying.
Luckily, just as quickly as John is thrown into this hellish world, he quickly comes crawling out. But whether a reader will want to spend time with him there, sipping Cuba Libres and sunbathing beneath the hot island sun, may depend on her tolerance for human awfulness.