When John Rechy published his debut novel in 1963, he anticipated that it would be well reviewed by a small cadre of literary critics and generally ignored by the majority of the reading public. In the event, exactly the opposite transpired.
City of Night became a runaway hit, charting at number eight on one U.S. national bestseller list even before its official publication. What Rechy had assumed would be its selling point for critics – a loose, jazzy, free-form structure that took its cues from Kerouac, Ginsberg, and their fellow Beat writers – was eclipsed by the public’s fascination over the explicit treatment of the book’s sexual material.
The novel, a picaresque Bildungsroman, follows the peripatetic urban adventures of an anonymous “youngman,” a street hustler who traffics in encounters throughout the homosexual underworld in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. Landing as it did in the early years of the 1960s, when prohibitive postwar attitudes toward homosexuality continued to pervade societal and legal structures in the U.S., the book caused a scandal as a result of its graphic sexual content.
“Only the book’s subject seemed to be receiving outraged attention; its careful structure, whether successful or not, was virtually ignored,” Rechy writes in an introduction to the novel’s 1984 edition. “I was viewed and written about as a hustler who had somehow managed to write, rather than a writer who was writing intimately about hustling.”
Rechy’s novel was published by Grove Press, the maverick independent publishing house that had already stirred up the American public by bringing out an unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s notorious 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book that was challenged in court and found in 1959 not to be obscene in the U.S. (Grove would participate in similar obscenity cases around Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, in 1964 and 1966 respectively.) In mid-century America, Grove was on the forefront of publishing avant-garde gay literature, including on their list writers like Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Jean Genet (to whom Rechy generally, and City of Night in particular, is frequently compared).
“Grove’s publication of these authors, and its active address to their audience during a time when homosexuality was still illegal across the United States, was a crucial component of its battle against literary censorship,” writes Loren Glass in Rebel Publisher: Grove Press and the Revolution of the Word. Glass asserts that City of Night, in particular, was “a landmark in publishing” and “Grove’s fastest-selling novel ever.” Glass also credits the book with playing a role in a literary “realignment of U.S. masculinity.”
But the themes and approach of Rechy’s novel reach beyond this to comprise an extended meditation on urban ennui and solitude. The author asserts this theme in the novel’s very first line, which situates its title in context and strikes a tonal note that will be repeated throughout the course of the book: “Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night stretching gaudily from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard – jukebox-winking, rock-n-roll-moaning: America at night fusing its darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.”
The novel opens with the narrator reminiscing about the death of his pet dog when he was little more than a boy. His religious mother informs him that the dog does not have a soul and therefore will not be admitted into heaven: “the body just disappears, becomes dirt.”
Death is a constant presence in the novel, often counterpointed with sex in a classic eros-thanatos conjunction. “[P]eople – die – when they see life – at last – without – Illusions,” says one of the youngman’s consorts, a morbidly obese, housebound professor in his sixties. “And so each of us commits suicide: when we will our own deaths: That is the only Death.” This philosophic speechifying goes on in a sweeping fashion – pages upon pages of unbroken, unparagraphed text – prior to each act of sexual congress.
“If youre young … you concentrate on Today,” the youngman thinks at another point. “Tomorrow, like Death, is inevitable but not thought of.” The narrator claims to be haunted by the “ghost image” of his mother and visits his father’s grave, which is capped with a “tiny marker” that seems “to acknowledge what life had done to him.”
And late in the novel, another of the youngman’s liaisons leads to a reverie about an incident from his childhood:
I remembered, then, that once as a child I had watched a neighbour kill a chicken. He had severed the head with an axe. For seconds, the chicken’s wings had fluttered urgently, the headless body quivering – the motions doubly terrifying in that the protesting sounds that should have accompanied them could no longer come from the lifeless head. The only sound was the desperate flaying of those wings … the blood had gushed from the neck – spilling out deep, deep, violently deep red through that opening as if to seal the wound that was carrying all life out of that convulsed body …
Why, now, had I remembered that beheaded chicken?
By this point, the reader is well aware – even if the youngman is not – of what the headless chicken implies. The confluence of sex and death in the novel is so prevalent that it is impossible to miss, as is the violence that underpins so many of the encounters, especially those involving more marginalized segments of an already marginalized population: the drag queens, the trans women, the racialized figures.
The narrator himself experiences conflicted reactions to the various individuals and situations that confront him: in Oakland, he encounters a flamboyant eccentric named Neil who is a closeted masochist. When Neil asks the narrator to beat him, the youngman lashes out in anger, then gestures in pity at the other man’s crumpled and broken body. Neil’s response to the youngman’s sympathy is telling: “[H]e shouted fiercely: ‘No, no! Youre not supposed to care!’ ”
The youngman is as much of an actor as any of the characters he encounters in Hollywood: he downplays his erudition because it would intimidate or put off potential scores; he has sex with young women to prove his masculinity (appearing effeminate being a fatal flaw for a street hustler); and he recoils from the characters and situations he is frequently confronted with. Yet throughout his travels he finds himself incapable of cultivating true indifference, longing instead for authentic connection or the ability to achieve self-recognition. “It’s possible to hate the filthy world and still love it with an abstract pitying love,” the youngman thinks in one of his more lucid moments.
City of Night is a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters; it is crafted in a style that owes a debt to Kerouac’s automatic writing while also capturing the rhythms and cadences of youth and the underground urban enclaves that the youngman passes through. The descriptive passages are vivid and evocative and frequently tinged with menace at the edges:
Along the trellised balconied houses, the taxi flees from the afternoon, into the protective custody of the approaching night. The youngman holding the blond one, who threatens to pass out at any moment (the older man sits in front, staring straight ahead; the driver is predictably unconcerned), is saying Toughly to me: “The dirty motherin bastard, we gonna come back and git him!” – asking me would we or wouldnt we kill the son of a bitch who had hit our buddy with a stick – although our buddy – the blond boy, whom both of us had met minutes earlier at Les Petits bar (all three of us with the same score), had done nothing but come on to the blackhaired-youngman’s girlfriend; and she, sensing the possible conflict (easily brought into play in any hustling bar by the necessity of the hustler to assert his masculinity with a girl – any girl, any woman) and instigating the scene connivingly (by winking at us as the darkhaired youngman embraced her), had told her boyfriend that the blondhaired boy had leaned toward her as if to kiss her. On the street the fight had occurred.
There is a spontaneous quality to the prose, as though it were written in one headlong rush (unsympathetic readers will recall Truman Capote’s distinction between writing and typing), though the unrestrained nature of the style lends it a tenor that helps fuse form and content in a novel that assiduously insists on youthful vigour in the face of the inevitable decay of age.
Rechy’s depiction of a drug-fuelled, fetish-ridden homosexual American subculture – before AIDS, before Pride parades and gay marriage – may explain to some extent why the novel became such a succès de scandale when it was first published. The descriptions of the world through which the youngman travels offered a vicarious window into an exotic, foreign culture for straight-laced suburbanites still suffering a hangover from the ultra-conservative 1950s. It offered readers an opportunity to partake in the street-level life of a hustler without ever risking anything themselves, and it provided Bible thumping moralists with a ready-made symbol of venality and sin for them to target.
But the prevalence of sex and drugs only gets a reader so far in a novel that proves resolutely downbeat in its jaundiced view of the world. Lost connections, loneliness, and and utter inability to form meaningful bonds with other human beings characterize the milieu the protagonist discovers after leaving his home, his mother, and his dead dog and dead father behind. This is to say nothing of the reality inherent in traversing a world in which a person risked arrest simply for being in the wrong bar or consorting with the wrong group of people.
Main Street is an anarchy where the only rule is Make It! … And the only reminders of the world beyond its boundaries are the policewagons that cruise the streets – the cops that pick you at random out of Hooper’s all-night coffee shop after 2:00 in the morning. … The free jammed ride to the glasshouse for fingerprints …
Rock-n-roll sounds fill the rancid air.
This was the world I joined.
It is perhaps this aspect of the novel that explains its enduring reputation among readers of American literature. A groundbreaking work of gay fiction and a scabrous account of a culture characterized by danger and a kind of casual violence, City of Night is simultaneously a product of its time and somehow outside of time altogether. Its vision is uncompromising and its central consciousness remains frustrated by an inability to achieve the kind of connection it is striving for. “Years, years, years ago, I had stared at my dead dog, buried under the littered ground of our barren backyard and dug out again, and I had seen in revulsion the decaying face,” the youngman muses. “Now, as if I had dug beneath the surface of the world, I saw that world’s face. And it was just as hideous.”
This is a sentiment that many 21st century readers would be hard pressed to deny recognizing.