Book Review: “Rushes” by John Rechy

Book Cover: "Rushes" a Novel by John Rechy

Set in one long night in a gay bar in 1970s California, John Rechy’s “Rushes” explores the cruising scene of that era. Explicitly sexual, it conjures the internal lives of its characters, channeling how it feels to be on the “sexhunt” in a dim bar centered solely on that purpose.

We meet a core group of friends/competitors. Endore, the authorial stand-in, is older but still attractive, obviously drawn to the sex and scene of the Rushes but wary of it as well, ambivalent about its self-loathing and superficiality. Chas is an unapologetic leatherman, a top man into sadomasochism. Bill is a young beauty who, we later finds out, likes to dominate through submission. And Don is too old and unattractive to make the scene anymore, but he still gets in with his friends, tormenting himself with all the men he can’t have.

The book takes us through a long night in the steamy bar, placing us in the mind of different characters as they reflect on the scene, their lust, their angst and limitations. The narrative can feel too internal at times, occasionally losing momentum as characters fixate on repeating themes and memories. Inciting incidents gradually introduce new complications, though. A woman ventures into the bar–a cruel, slumming, artistic fashion designer looking for stimulation. Two prostitutes find refuge there and are forced away. A young gay man enters on his first night out, and a self-loathing male prostitute outdoors rages against his clientele.

Throughout these scenes, Rechy shares what it’s like to be on the hunt. His characters are constantly checking out one another, scrutinizing fresh faces that enter the bar, signaling to test connections but not committing for fear of being rejected and shamed. The docks are nearby, and meat trucks too, after-hours destinations for anonymous sex. Danger lurks as well, as gangs of gay bashers cruise the streets, looking to attack and even kill gay men. Some might even enter the bars themselves to lure their prey outside.

With “Rushes,” Rechy seems to critique different movements in the gay scene at the time of publication. Endore seems skeptical of the leather fetishists and their associated humiliations, arguing that S&M is more an internalization of self-loathing than an embrace of gay men’s outlaw status. But he’s skeptical of monogamy among gay men too and criticizes the misogyny that erupts in their spaces, even as he admits he resents women venturing into the Rushes.

A successful lawyer but a failed cruiser, Don argues for the pre-Stonewall era as a more civilized time, the police raids balanced by better manners, a sense of class. But he’s obviously crumbling, falling into drunkenness, loneliness, irrelevance.

Each character is a cautionary tale, and the Rushes itself isn’t enticing. It’s scuzzy and desperate. A late-night descent into the S&M club next door, the Rack, is even more hellish. But Rechy captures that each place is alive with something beautiful, something that can’t be grasped by straight society. As Chas argues, “When you’re still walking the piers, a faggot all alone looking for sex, and it’s Sunday morning, you know you’re alive, man. Alive. Because you know you’ve been through the greatest adventure.”

The book itself attempts to weave that spell, to capture precisely the allure of the Rushes. In doing so, it conjures something almost like a bacchanalia, full of derangement and frenzy and even sacrifice. Endore and his crew seem both blessed and damned; Rechy does a great job sharing both aspects of their experience. From a historic standpoint, though, it’s hard to finish the book and not shiver at what would be coming for these characters next, as the 80s dawned and the AIDS epidemic erupted. But that’s not here. Not tonight.


“As often as he comes to the Rushes, Don still feels an outsider in it, and is. In the homosexual world of the bars there are avenging ghosts who refuse exorcism: the relentlessly effeminate among the relentlessly–even when unsuccessfully–macho men; the faded “beauties” changing into “queens” and clinging to shadows and the shadow of memories; and the older men–often near-alcoholics–who refuse to disappear from the sexual arenas or to surrender to the tight dinner groupings of men their age and older, gatherings brightened or rendered event more desolating by an occasional, quite often discreetly bought, “boy.”

Don is one of the avengers.

“Have you chosen yet whom you will be pursued by, Endore?” Martin stabs.

Rage bursts. “When will you finally choose, Martin?”

“I choose not to choose,” Martin answers. “There is no greater power over the beautiful than to withhold desire from them.”

“Listen,” Chas says passionately. “Listen. When you’re still walking the piers, a faggot all alone looking for sex, and it’s Sunday morning, you know you’re alive, man. Alive. Because you know you’ve been through the greatest adventure. And you’re alive. Still alive! Despite the punks and all the yells of ‘Queer!” and all the raids–despite all their shit, the shit we live with, we’re alive! That’s the only victory we have, man, and that’s what makes being a faggot special. That you can survive all that–for an excitement like no other, and you’re always on the edge, and that’s when you’re most alive, when you know you’re still alive, and tomorrow, too, because tomorrow it all starts again, our only continuity. That’s the joy that only we faggots have. Because in between the busts and the headbashings and the screams for our blood–before whatever it is that finally takes us over–getting drunk or going crazy or, yeah, killing ourselves or just dying–we’re alive, and they can’t even feel, not even pain, but we do, pain and relief when it’s over, and you call it S & M and that’s ok. But we feel, and they’re dead–having to come here to sniff at our world, breathe our sweat.”