Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rediscovering John Rechy's City of Night

I screwed up last week and posted this when it wasn't my turn so I am re-posting.

March 10th marked the birthday of one of the pioneers of LGBT literature, John Rechy.   To celebrate and festejar John Rechy I invite you to read two reviews.  One is a review of his last book, About My Life and the Kept Woman, by fellow bloguero Daniel Olivas: .   The second one is of his first work, City of Night.  It is my honor to introduce you to a new guest columinist, Andrew J. Peters.   Al rato!

Rediscovering John Rechy's City of Night

by Andrew J. Peters

Among his many accomplishments, John Rechy has a special place in the history of gay American literature. His début novel City of Night, released in 1963, was one of the few overtly gay-themed works to achieve commercial success in the pre-Stonewall era. While earlier authors contributed critically-acclaimed portrayals of same-sex love, usually of the tortured, unactualized variety—Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room for example, Rechy broke ground with his insight into the homosexual underground where men created identities such as "hustler," "fairy," and "daddy" beneath a society that criminalized their desires. Rechy's dispassionate depiction of urban subculture was carried forward by such great authors as William Burroughs and Paul T. Rogers.

Rechy also happens to be the only writer of Latino descent among the gay novelists of his time. But while City of Night takes inspiration quite literally from Rechy's personal search for identity, his story sheds sparingly little light on issues of culture. Besides the autobiographical narrator, there's only one Latino character in the entire novel: a ferocious drag queen rendered in two gripping pages. The narrator's interaction with her is brief but central to the novel's theme of the triumph of self-expression over social sanction.

That Rechy chose not to address race is to some degree a matter of his narrator's make-up and his particular journey. He's on a mission to bury his childhood innocence which was indelibly scarred by his father's abuse, thus his relationship to other characters is sexualized, brief and transactional. Still, it is through the narrator's "scores" and sexually-compulsive encounters that he gradually comes to learn about himself: the hustler Pete who swaggers with heterosexual bravado but reaches out with growing desperation for emotional connection to the narrator; a score named The Professor who chronicles his hustler "angels" in a scrap book but breaks off with the man he loves at the insinuation of reciprocal affection; the thirty-something Skipper who touched fame for a moment while he was kept by a Hollywood director but was tossed aside for the next young thing and spends his days and nights in a skid row bar.

Rechy's omission of culture reflects the real life choices of many gay men of color in the 1960's (and beyond). His literary canon exemplifies the challenge to integrate racial and sexual identities prior to the relatively recent possibility of gay men of color organizing socially and politically for themselves; Rechy's novels about gay life include few references to people of color while his stories about Hispanic life are populated almost entirely by non-gay men and women—a trend we also see in the work of James Baldwin who oscillated between the African American and gay literary worlds. What can be said about Rechy's cultural point of view is that the few Latino men in City of Night surpass caricature or objectification, an insidious pitfall of many of his gay literary counterparts.

The question of what makes a novel "gay" is infinitely debatable, and it would be a disservice to City of Night to limit its relevance to gay readers. The story captures the universal human experience of alienation and shattered innocence and foreshadowed cross-over novels such as Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin. But to the extent that City of Night deals quite candidly with gay sex, love and acceptance, it holds a place in the cornerstone of gay American literature. Like all classic works, City of Night imparts enduring wisdom, especially in its final pages. My favorite line comes from a conversation between the narrator and a score named Jeremy who confronts the narrator about his inability to integrate sex and love. To the narrator's complaint that relationships between men are inherently and inevitably exploitative, Jeremy responds: "We say we hate the world, but we imitate it constantly."

Andrew J. Peters is a writer and a social worker for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in New York City. His blog and a description of his projects can be found at


jerilyn said...

ooh - this sounds good, I definitely will read it!!

Anonymous said...

It's great to get the background on City of Night. I have been meaning to read it for years, your column definitely got me to open it yesterday. Hope to see more of your writing.


Andrew said...

Hey- Thanks Jerilyn and Quique! Glad to have turned you on to Rechy. I don't think you will be disappointed.