50 Years of John Rechy’s ‘City of Night’
Author: Charles Casillo
October 22, 2013
I believe that when you are a creative person you intuitively find your people—your influences, your teachers. These are the artists who came before you, who talk to you through their works, so that literature becomes an ongoing dialogue from generation to generation. When I first came across John Rechy’s novel City of Night as a teenager, I knew I had found one of my first great teachers. Rechy’s novel touched something in me and unleashed it. It excited me. It made me want to write. I discovered an important mentor in John Rechy. City of Night was the first time a book perfectly expressed my most secret feelings without telling my own personal story.
This month, Grove/Atlantic is bringing out a special 50th Anniversary edition of the classic story of a sensitive male prostitute hustling his way from city to city, intermingling with a series of bruised and confused misfits and outcasts, trying to find acceptance in a society that refused to accept him. The novel continues to reach out and move and inspire new readers just as it did in 1963.
Like all lasting literature, City of Night has and will continue to adjust itself around the changes that come with the years. It doesn’t need computers, cell phones, or internet hook up sites to make us feel the awkwardness that can arise from first romantic or sexual encounters. It doesn’t need reality television shows to expose the eccentrics of the world who capture our attention and our hearts with their singular behavior. Future generations will relate to the basic, raw emotions of one human being trying to connect to another, constructing disguises, wearing masks in order to find acceptance and to be loved.
Nowadays, by the time most readers get to City of Night, they’ve been wounded. It’s very difficult to break through the barriers we built up to protect us from being reached. But this novel is not concerned with our walls. It addresses our humanity, cutting through our history, and talks directly to our secret selves in a private language we understand.
– Charles Casillo
Here are some authors and readers–of different ages and different backgrounds—on their own personal experience with reading City of Night.
The importance of City of Night went far beyond any imaginable literary and critical notoriety the novel received. Because the book was widely distributed at a time when there were so few books about being gay—and I mean novels with young protagonists who were openly gay and unashamed about it—it landed into the hands of young men like myself, who lived in small rural towns, and found themselves different and seeking information as to the “why” and “how” and “what ifs” associated with it. City of Night wasn’t so much a road-map of what sort of other life you could expect as it was an awakening that there were others out there like you and you could chart your own path.
I first read a chapter from City of Night, “Miss Destiny’s Fabulous Wedding” on the beach in Chicago. I was 20 and it was in a magazine, I think “Big Table.” I had a very hip beautiful lover, a Native American, and he gave me the excerpt. It blew me away and opened up whole new vistas of gay writing for me. The same guy introduced me to Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn. The idea that you could be hip and gay, that gay fiction could be as cool as jazz, was brand new to me.
“One day someone will say about you, ‘I had him when he was young and pretty.'”
Desperation. It’s the fuel that propels the main character in City of Night on his bizarre, extreme journey into the wicked nightworld of America’s cities. Although he’s young, he hears the biological clock ticking. He thinks, “In a life that can date you when you begin to look older than twenty-five, I felt myself clawing to hold on to the present.” Night after night he hustles; the men who pay him for sex are his scores. Each transaction is a symbol of his worth, a sign that he matters in this careless world.
Some of the depictions in City of Night are dated. Set in the decade before Stonewall, vice cops are a constant worry. Frequent arrests are a fact of life. Some cops go as far as to force drag queens to cut their hair, an effrontery unthinkable today. Of course, by contrast, the pre-Giuliani Times Square is a red zone rife with sex hook-ups, replaced today by the private realms of Grindr and Craigslist.
Fifty years ago there were no openly gay United States senators or ambassadors to foreign countries. There was no “It Gets Better” campaign to help young people come to terms with their sexual orientation. There was only the contempt and self-loathing of the homosexual. In this sense, we’ve come a long way. We have much further to go but City of Night serves as a barometer to remind us of our progress.
Truth be told, however, the differences between then and now pale in comparison to the similarities. The obsession with youth and beauty, the desire to be desired, a fear-driven bravado, the longing to find your place in a hostile world—these themes are just as present today as they were then, just as they will be in the gay world of 2063.
City of Night is by a young man, about a young man. The reader is left to speculate about this young man’s future. My own speculation is colored by my experience. I believe he’ll accept the reality of love and that he’ll grow into an understanding that it’s okay to need other people.
Up close he looked like a character that stepped right out of a novel.
I remember in my younger years cruising the upper road at Griffith Park with lots of turn outs and guys cruising. One day I turned a corner and there ahead of me was an incredible sight: an incredibly handsome, extremely muscular man wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit—standing by his convertible. He had a beautiful body which was oiled and glistening in the California sun. He was posing even though there was no audience. I think he was his audience. And then I was.
I was enamored by this living god. I pulled off and parked in the turn out and casually approached the object of my lust and struck up a conversation— “nice weather today, you come here much,” etc. And then I got up the nerve to compliment him on his magnificent physique and the compliments began to roll out of my mouth. I’m sure he also my recognized the admiration in my lustful eyes, which I could not take off of him. It was apparent that he enjoyed the praise and my words became a litany of adoration. This seemed to arouse him even more. I actually knelt behind his car and he gently brushed his crotch against my face, but would not let me touch him.
So this was my first meeting with the legend, but not my last. I had the privilege of a few more encounters over a 10-year period. That first time I didn’t know that it was John Rechy, the author of the classic novel City of Night, but once I put two and two together it made perfect sense. No one else could have written it. I have jacked off many times about my memories with one of the most beautiful men I ever met.
At the age of 18, I considered Rimbaud and Rainer Maria Rilke my literary gods, and with the inflexibility of an adolescent, I compared everything I read to them. But I was intrigued by a certain issue of the Evergreen Review that was circulating underground in my lit classes. I was a Junior at Queens College, City University of New York, at that time a tiny college difficult to get in and remain in. I’d entered as an art major intending to become an artist. But in 1962, Abstractionism was the god of college Art Departments. I hated it and refused to do “blob painting” so the dean let me co-major in World Lit.
I soon fell in with three brilliant, older lit. students: daunted professors called us The Hell Fire Club. They had that magazine but refused to let me read it because of one piece of fiction by a writer named John Rechy. “You’re too young for this,” Steve Charnow told me. I was 18 at the time; he 21. Although a big new cafeteria had been built, we used to hang out with the other intellectuals and creative types in the old “Little Caf” –Jerry Blatt, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Marvin Hamlisch, and Barbra Garson were among schoolmates and visitors who could be found there most afternoons. That’s where I got my hands on that issue of the Evergreen Review and read the first excerpt from City of Night.
I’d been going into Manhattan and especially into Greenwich Village on my own for years, since high school, mostly to see foreign films, and I would pass gaggles of drag queens (“You’ve just been touched by the good fairy, hon!”) and have guys dressed in fuzzy sweaters and Capezio slip-ons with Gina Lollabrigida hairdos flirt with me in coffee shops. So I wasn’t completely naïve. And actually what I was reading fit the life that I used to see, oh so briefly, between movies and getting home to boring Long Island. Two things impressed me immediately: how poetic the language was: unique and yet street talk. Very Rimbaud, I thought. And secondly how comfortable it all felt to me.
Sure there were oddities in Rechy’s world: the obese man who bought pretty hustlers to blow who called them his “Angels.” And the drug parties—I’d not smoked pot yet. Sure, there were things about it that frightened me. I recall walking a dark alley from some Broadway theatre to the subway, and a big black limo with tinted windows slowly followed –just like in the novel. Terrified that I’d be pulled in, I hurried away. While browsing in a 43rd and Broadway bookstore, I was often approached by older men wearing wedding rings and their “Mad Men” suburban uniforms. They would circle around getting closer and then after inane chat ask if I had “a place we can go.” So clearly I could pass for a hustler.
I felt like I could live in the world he portrayed without too much accommodation. If it wasn’t quite home nor was it the hell it seemed to others I knew. I read the entire book a few years later, when I could afford to buy non-school books, and I was once more impressed by the originality of the language and how comfortable that after-night world felt to me. I’d soon begin living my own version of that in the Village myself. But mine would be post-grad and preppy by comparison: clean cut.
Years later I was reminded of the book when I brought a younger and iffy working class guy home. Before we entered my duplex, I threw him against the corridor wall and frisked him; then turned that into lovemaking which—he found to be a turn on. So I’d learned from City of Night too.
When I first read City of Night I was laying on the bed of a Navy Reserve Officer who had picked me up after I had been living on the streets homeless for four days.
I had taken a Greyhound bus to Atlanta to stay with my mother in hopes of getting back on my feet and away from sleeping on friends’ and strangers’ couches in Chicago. When I got to Chattanooga, I saw a copy of the book City of Nights in a nearby vintage bookstore, the title of which caught my attention. Unfortunately staying with my mother did not work out.
It was June 14th, 1993 and it was cold and rainy.
There I was standing on the corner of Piedmont, hustling passerbys in the rain with nothing more than a brown gym bag, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a t-shirt, two pair of underwear, and two books (the Bible and City of Night).
After four days I was finally safe inside the officer’s bedroom at his apartment in Marietta when I opened the first page of the book and began to read.
In an instant it hurled me into a phantasm, a melancholy bliss. I felt that it was actually God speaking directly to me from Heaven. After finishing the first chapter I unequivocally cried but they were tears of joy as I had found a friend a … voice that conversed into a tumultuous poetry that was meant only for me. In the dimly lit room, I acquiesced to the realities of “angels” on the streets carousing dark dismal souls, drenched in hope and pain whilst wallowing amongst demons and the cold but frivolity of death and the dark harsh feelings that one can have for a father as I, at the time, had held for my mother.
I truly experienced the essence of God reaching into my soul with John Rechy’s every word; forever changing my life as he spoke of nights forlorn with intrinsic vulnerability. His words breaching the crevices of the lonely, which cloak themselves in desire, unveiling the ghostly shadowy creatures of the night that also hunger for the light.
City of Night unlocks the hearts of us that crave and long for someone to hear our voices, an unspoken salvation that is lost within the wind, and found in a fairy tale of mirrors and masks. It took me three days to read the entire book and on the fourth night I found myself, also a nameless character, staring out the window; I was safe in my mother’s house.
I picked up a pen and wrote my very first story, a poetic letter about Dreams.
John Rechy’s City of Night transformed me. It gave me the courage to find my heaven.