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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 28, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 26
Eternal darkness - Fifty years later, City of Night is still timely as ever
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Eternal darkness - Fifty years later, City of Night is still timely as ever

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

CITY OF NIGHT
JAMES RECHY
(Grove Press, 1963)


City of Night is one of the most essential novels in Gay literary history. First published in 1963, it explores the dark underbelly of that era's Gay world, filled with hustlers, johns, drag queens, leather men, and every type in between. At a time when the word 'homosexual' was barely whispered and rarely appeared in print (except in the medical journals branding it a mental illness), City of Night exposed this hidden subculture in a way that shocked even its participants.

Honestly and liberally autobiographical, City of Night tells the story of one man's search for friendship, love, and self-understanding. At the center is a young Texan boy of Mexican heritage who sets out into the world with one major asset that is as much a curse as a blessing: his undeniable sex appeal. While the nameless protagonist sells himself to men, he keeps up the appearance of being seduced by women - a common trait in the hustlers' world to invoke an aura of masculinity and thus be more desirable to their scores. According to the rules of the street, a hustler must always be the ideal man - any visibly 'queer' traits would destroy the illusion. Being effeminate was a reason for being loathed, and a hustler needed to be desired.

The young man's journey takes him from his small Texan hometown to the animalistic prowling of New York City's Time Square. On the streets and in darkened movie houses, he meets an endless turnstile of men all seeking the one thing that had always been denied them - sexual exploration of another man. The protagonist is first approached by a Mr. King, who makes his proposal brief and to the point: 'I'll give you $10, and I don't give a damn about you' - thus setting the tone for his New York experience. He is 'employed' by a bedridden professor, who collects memories and pictures of his boy 'angels.' He meets Peter, another street hustler, who helps introduce him to prospective scores and teaches him the rules of street survival.

COLORFUL CHARACTERS
Like a dark version of the Everyman protagonist from The Pilgrim's Progress, the hero explores homosexual America, learning about the world as much as about his own self in the process. In Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans, his hustling introduces him to an assortment of people, all seething with the desperation of an endless search for something else. There are the queens, like over-the-top Miss Destiny (a true-life character), who is constantly planning a 'fabulous wedding' with a new husband. Or Sergeant Morgan, a police officer who relishes busting the men in Pershing Square - and secretly delights in taking advantage of those he arrests. And, of course, there is the absurdly funny and tragic 'Mom,' a man who enjoys picking up young men, taking them home, and cooking for them as if they were his own children before collecting his money's worth.

But the after-dark world that Rechy exposes is not just an endless procession of seedy types. Skipper is the former lover of a famous Hollywood director, seeking to recapture the comfortable position he once enjoyed. Lance O'Hara was once a Hollywood star, beautiful in appearance, and scorned by the one man he loves but can't obtain.

Of course there are men looking for love in this dark, maelstrom world - that inevitable, demanding master who taunts each character with delightful, moon-filled promises only to burn away illusion and reveal their own harsh truths in daylight. The married man the narrator meets on the beach, who tries for a more fulfilling connection than just the blatant gratification of a sexual encounter. And the man in New Orleans who watches from a distance before confronting the narrator and chipping away at his carefully built protective exterior. But it is the struggle and definition of what 'love' is that finally breaks down the narrator, sending him on his own search for what has always been missing from his own life.

Fifty years later, the extent of City of Night's influence on society is clear. Despite all the social and political changes that have taken place since the early 1960s, it is frightening to realize how much of that same self-loathing and desperation still exists today. It is also important for the generations who have never lived in a world without HIV or some form of LGBT social self-awareness to know how far the liberation movement has come. The darkened bars reeking of oppression, desperation, and the fear that at any moment the place could be raided and everyone inside arrested - this really happened. It was a time when simply being Gay was a criminal offense, and lives were ruined if the truth were discovered. Not so long ago the world that Mr. Rechy writes about was a reality, and City of Night graphically documents this forgotten world for us to explore, grime, grit and all.

LIVING THE LIFE
What started out as letters written detailing his life as a hustler in New Orleans, became City of Night, a book whose writer was described by Gore Vidal as 'one of the few original American writers of the last century.' When Grove Press originally published the novel in 1963 John Rechy was still working on the streets of Los Angeles, trying to keep his two worlds from meshing together. Since then he has published more than 10 other books (both fiction and nonfiction), and has lectured at Harvard, Duke and Yale, as well as teaching courses on writing at UCLA. He currently still lives in L.A. with his partner and offers writing courses to the public (check out www.johnrechy.com for details). City of Night was recently named one of the 25 all-time best Gay novels by the Publishing Triangle of New York.

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