This is the worst confection yet devised by the masterminds behind the Grove epater-la-post-office Machine. So fabricated is it that, despite the adorable photograph on the rear of the dust jacket, I can hardly believe there is a real John Rechy—and if there is, he would probably be the first to agree that there isn’t—for City of Night reads like the unTrue Confessions of a Male Whore as told to Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Thomas Wolfe, Fanny Hurst and Dr. Franzblau. It is pastiche from the word go. Here are three quotes that come to you through the courtesy of Page One alone:
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 dark cities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.
One night sex and cigarette smoke and rooms squashed in by loneliness…
And I would remember lives lived out darkly in that vast City of Night, from all-night movies to Beverly Hills mansions.
Actually, City of Night is two books of short stories, sneaking their way through each other to give the volume the appearance of a novel, partly, I would guess, because novels are more negotiable than short stories and partly, I am sure, because the amorality of the characters in what I will call Book One helps disguise the eminently respectable morality of the hero-narrator in Book Two. The episodes that comprise Book One are concerned with those lives lived out darkly in what is nowadays called The Homosexual Underground, though never before has it been so much on the surface. We are taken on a guided tour of gay bars and beaches, turkish baths, parks, S & M scenes (Sado-Masochism) for those of you who aren’t aficionados), queer parties and movie houses, faggot social life and street life, and so on. The works. It is a blow by blow account, so to speak, of where to go for what you want (assuming of course that you want it)—a kind of “Sodom on Five Dollars a Day.” Throughout most of these episodes, the nameless hero of the novel plays no part except as observer or listener; his passport into this world that never, finally, makes him is the fact that he’s a hustler and lets himself be had for money. (I regret telling you that the full extent or the exact nature of his being had is something he and Rechy are quite silent about.) These stories do not bring anything new to literature, homosexual, sociological or American. They’re mostly about the same old queens doing the same old things: swishing and bitching and cruising and falling in love and leaving each other and getting desperate and growing old and worrying over it. And there’s no general reason why it shouldn’t be pleasant to read about them once again. But Rechy’s stories are awful, and they’re awful for two very specific reasons which may ultimately sound like one. The first is that disgusting rhetoric that Rechy pours all over everything like jam. The episodes are so gracelessly, clumsily written, so stickily, thickly literary; in his determination to boil every last drop of poetry out of pederasty, Rechy ends up with nothing but a pot of blackberry prose. The trouble is, he has no ear whatsoever. He is deaf to the music in language, and thus deaf to the rhythms of homosexual speech. He is not, however, deaf to the fact that other writers haven’t been, and through their ears he listens to his own characters.
Here is Rechy listening through Capote listening through Djuna Barnes:
For me something does indeed shine: the wings of the angels—briefly but clearly. Angels are all I see when I glance heavenward, and that is Enough. And I never know how I shall meet those angels—it was not always as it is now—when Larry chooses them for me. You see, I am bedridden…. Sometimes he brings me demiangels: they last only one interview. But sometimes there are jewels in the streets.
And here is Rechy listening through Jean Genet:
Indeed, indeed! here comes Miss Destiny! fluttering out of the shadows into the dimlights along the ledges like a giant firefly—flirting, calling out to everyone: “Hello, darling, I love you—I love you too, dear—so very much—ummm!” Kisses flung recklessly into the wind…. “What oh what did Chuck say to you, darling?” to me, coming on breathlessly rushing. “You must understand right here and now that Chuck still loves me, like all my exhusbands (youre new in town, dear, or I would certainly have seen you before, and do you have a place to stay?—I live on Spring Street and there is a ‘Welcome!’ mat at the door)….”
Like all false poets, Rechy listens to other poets and not to life, and like all false poets, he tries to make poetry out of mood rather than music. And he tries it with all the conventional contemporary props. He is full of “night” and “loneliness.” He is full of “dark” and “fireflies” and “shadows.” He is full of “wind.” But he is utterly void of song. So his stories give you the feeling that you have heard them before and don’t want to hear them again, and the feeling is even stronger in the episodes whose original teller you can’t identify than in those whose you can.
The second, and perhaps more internal, reason for Rechy’s failure in Book One is that there is absolutely no real, living response in the narrator to the things and people he talks about and witnesses. This is not merely the result of a suspension of judgment or moral attitude; it isn’t this at all. It is a terrified refusal by the hero—or if I may say so, by the author—to respond honestly and immediately lest the response be construed (if only by himself) as an involvement. This is very much in keeping with the nature of the hero who wants to limit his homosexual life to where he wears his BVDs—no love an’ kisses, man, cause I’m butch, man—and if his author had let him be, it might have proved interesting. But Rechy must have read a book of rules and regulations somewhere and learned that characters have got to respond in order to be lifelike. So he makes his poor frightened hustler respond, but not as a man, as a writer—and everyone on earth knows that writers don’t feel, they just talk. The hustler, then, substitutes literature for emotion, as in that “Indeed, indeed” nonsense quoted above. This results in the total castration of humor and life, even that little bit of it that might have crept in if the hero never tried to respond and merely described things flatly, with his own, or his author’s, inhibitions in open operation. Rechy has too little confidence, is too scared, to give himself to the public as he is, however good or bad that may be, so he coats himself with literary armor before sallying out into the world. This would be innocence if one did not feel he had begun to confuse himself with his armor—and that of course would be corruption.
Book Two of City of Night is a series of love stories in which the narrator is the beloved and unwilling participant. He wants to be loved and wanted, but he doesn’t want to love or want—he doesn’t, in fact, want to be queer, though this is much too chic a book to admit that except backhandedly. Our hero is a very loveless boy, the kind of person we now speak of as “someone incapable of love.” And, as with all these people, if you are hot for them enough, or bedevilled and tormented by them enough, and if you look and examine very hard, you will find that it is not at all true that they cannot love. They can; they do; alas, they love too much, which is the problem, for they are always loving someone else. They too are hot, bedevilled and tormented; they too are looking and examining—even if their object is only a dead mother, a brother, a boyhood chum grown fat and foul. Rechy’s hero loves his mother and hates his father or something like that and is spending his youth in a Freudian way making men pay, literally and emotionally, for his dull parental complexes. (There is also some big narcissism complex he’s got which I’m too lazy to figure out.) What it all adds up to is another tale about another boy who won’t surrender to his homosexuality. Instead of the usual puritan ethic, Rechy uses Freudian psychology, but it’s still the same old baloney. All his abortive love affairs are written out of the traditional anguished, romantic sentimentality, and of course you wish, you just wish like mad that sodomy wasn’t against the laws of heaven and earth so this sweet little whore could make it for life with some nice guy—settle down to a pretty house in the suburbs, regular job, TV, kids with corn-colored hair. But even here the lump in the throat keeps getting Reched out by the author’s literary bent. Everything has to get written down. The last of these romantic episodes takes place in a bedroom in New Orleans, Mardi Gras time, of course, with raging Inferno images everywhere, of course. Our hero has been rented by a “well-built, masculine man in his early thirties, with uncannily dark eyes, light hair. He is intensely, moodily handsome…. Looking at him, I wonder why such a man would pay another male when he could obviously make it easily and mutually in any of the bars.” (The reason why is soon made clear to the reader, but not to the narrator, and certainly not to the author who is always so busy writing that he is the last one to know what his characters are like. The man has to pay because he is so boring that no one in his right mind would spend more than five minutes talking to him gratis.) The ensuing bedroom conversation, covering nearly twenty-five pages, is surely the most lengthy and embarrassing exposition of Franzblauthink ever to appear outside the pages of The New York Post.
“You want, very much, to be loved—but you don’t want to love back, even if you have to force yourself not to.”
…I grab defensively for the streetpose that will dismiss his statement. “Oh, man, dig,” I said, “I just want to ball while I can.”
“Wouldn’t your masculinity be compromised much less if you tested your being ‘wanted’ with women instead of men?”
“It’s easier to hustle men,” I defended myself quickly.
“I think it’s something else,” he went on relentlessly. “Even a wayward revenge on your own sex—your father’s sex…”
“I’m sure youve thought you have a definite advantage of whatever kind over the people youve been with, because theyve wanted you, because theyve paid you—some sort of victory beyond the sexexperience, beyond the money. (But don’t you need them just as badly?)…And it’s not just on your side that the symbols take over and create the elaborate guilt-ridden defenses…”
This, I want you to know, is supposed to be courtship, for Jeremy, as the man with the uncannily dark eyes is called, wants to marry the hustler in spite of her past. It is a near miss for both of them, since our hero does what he has apparently never done before to any other man: he kisses Jeremy on the lips.
And I was thinking: Yes, maybe youre right. Maybe I could love you. But I won’t.
The grinding streets awaited me.
But he doesn’t stay on the grinding streets very long. Mardi Gras is hardly over when he suddenly undergoes a page-and-a-half of religious conversion, telephoning churches all over town, and that symbolical sine qua non taken care of, he returns home to EI Paso and Mama.
Here, by another window, I’ll look back on the world and I’ll try to understand…. But, perhaps, mysteriously, it’s all beyond reasons. Perhaps it’s as futile as trying to capture the wind.
Oooo, Mary, doesn’t it make chills go up and down your spine? Especially with all those apostrophes mysteriously shoved back into their contractions!
So the hustler goes home to Texas, still pure as the driven prairies. He hasn’t surrendered to the crime against nature, to the sin that has no name—just like a good American boy shouldn’t. His virtue is intact because he never loved no one but Mama, and his masculinity is whole because it was never punctured except for money. How interesting that lovelessness and prostitution should, without any evidence of irony, serve Rechy’s work as saviours of puritanism and middleclass morality. If it weren’t so deadpan, it would be a scream. But the only sense of humor in or around City of Night comes from the guy who wrote the jacket blurb: “This is a novel about America. It is a novel about loneliness, about love and the ceaseless, groping search for love.”
Better cut out all that ceaseless groping, Jack, and get down to work!
June 1, 1963