John Rechy’s highly autobiographical first novel, City of Night, might also be considered the first openly revealing novel to explore what we now consider LBGT life in America.
It’s interesting to recall the controversy that this book caused back in the ’60s and to recognize that today we even have gay marriage. Let’s take off our hats to the late Barney Rossit who almost single-handedly used the alternative voice of Grove Press to bring us such exciting and thought provoking literature.
I found that you cant always tell a score by his age or appearance: There are the young and the goodlooking ones—the ones about whom you wonder why they prefer to pay someone (who will most likely at least not indicate desiring them back) when there exists—much, much vaster than the hustling world—the world of unpaid, mutually desiring males —the easy pickups. . . . But often the scores are near-middle-aged or older men. And they are mostly uneffeminate. And so you learn to identify them by their method of approaching you (a means of identification which becomes instinctively surer and easier as you hang around longer). They will make one of the standard oriented remarks; they will offer a cigarette, a cup of coffee, a drink in a bar: anything to give them time in which to decide whether to trust you during those interludes in which there is always a suggestion of violence (although, for some, I would learn later, this is one of the proclaimed appeals—that steady hint of violence); time in which to find out if you’ll fit their particular sexfantasy.
I learned that there are a variety of roles to play if you’re hustling: youngmanoutofajob butlooking; dontgiveadamnyoungman drifting; perrenialhustler easytomakeout; youngmanlostinthebigcity pleasehelpmesir. There was, too, the pose learned quickly from the others along the street: the stance, the jivetalk—a mixture of jazz, joint, junk sounds—the almost-disdainful, disinterested, but, at the same time, inviting look; the casual way of dress.
And I learned too that to hustle the streets you had to play it almost-illiterate. … And so I determined that from now on I would play it dumb. And I would discover that to many of the street people a hustler became more attractive in direct relation to his seeming insensitivity—his “toughness.” I would wear that mask.
City of Night is highly episodic and not a smooth continuous narrative. The protagonist leaves El Paso (where Rechy was born) and discovers the hustle and bustle of New York City (especially the hustle in and around Time Square). Then the scene switches back to El Paso and on to Los Angeles and San Francisco and many other cities where the protagonist can find a place to crash and an easy hustle to put a few dollars in his pocket. City of Night strikes me as a cross between some of the early work of Gary Indiana and Willian T. Vollmann, especially The Royal Family. Although decidedly less gay oriented, the film Midnight Cowboy from the same period is to some extent a graphic analog of Rechy’s novel.
Why do we read gay literature? Not being gay myself I might say that I don’t identify with the LGBT lifestyles (not really lifestyle for the LGBT community but only for those looking in from the outside) but such a conclusion would be shallow and inaccurate. More modern gay literature tends to skip over any moral or societal themes and dive right into the emotional life. We have all heard horribly clichéd statements about gays involving fun and lust and interior decorating and, although there may be some truth here, as there is with most clichés, there also seems to be a magnification of human characteristics, foibles, and feelings. I think some of the better LGBT literature gives the reader an insight into the human condition that is not really different but far more heightened and clarified.
If you want to read about life then don’t avoid gay literature. The highs are higher and the lows are lower, but moreover it tends to be more honest and reveling than most of the questionable hetero-reading stacked up on the front rounder at Barnes and Noble.
Go for it!
Here is the current list of John Rechy’s works taken from Wikipedia:
City of Night (1963)
This Day’s Death (1969)
The Vampires (1971)
The Fourth Angel (1972)
Bodies and Souls (C1983)
Marilyn’s Daughter (1988)
The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez (1991)
Our Lady of Babylon (1996)
The Coming of the Night (1999)
The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens (2003)
The Sexual Outlaw (1977)
Beneath the Skin (2004)
About My Life and the Kept Woman (2008) [memoir]