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John Rechy's "City of Night" at 50
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/25/13
Last updated on: 10/25/13
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The fiftieth anniversary edition of John Rechy's landmark novel.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of John Rechy's landmark novel City of Night, Grove Press has issued a new edition. In addition, on October 23, 2013 the book was the subject of a panel discussion at UCLA where Rechy was discussed as a Mexican-American writer, a gay writer, and an L.A. writer.

As David Ulin reports in the Books section of the Los Angeles Times the panel discussion at UCLA was co-sponsored by the César E. Chavez Department of Chicana/o Studies and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and organized by professor Héctor Calderón.

Ulin presents Rechy as a misunderstood and marginalized writer, "an outsider even in the cultures of which he is a part." He quotes Rechy as having lamented, "I find myself a 'Texas writer' left out of discussions of Texas writers, a 'Chicano writer' omitted from anthologies of Chicano writers, a 'California writer' ignored in books about California. And even though I am excluded from several anthologies of homosexual writers, I am often designated as 'a gay writer.'"

To the extent that Rechy is marginalized, much of it is his own fault. He has consistently resisted several of his identities. For example, even as he complains of marginalization, he laments that he is designated a "gay writer" while also bemoaning his exclusion from anthologies of "homosexual" writers. Rechy has always had an uneasy relationship with gayness and has frequently made clear that he does not want to be seen as a "gay writer."

Grove Press decribes the novel in its catalogue as follows: "When John Rechy's explosive first novel appeared in 1963, it marked a radical departure from all other novels of its kind, and gave voice to a subculture that had never before been revealed with such acuity. It earned comparisons to Genet and Kerouac, even as Rechy was personally attacked by scandalized reviewers. Nevertheless, the book became an international best-seller and ushered in a new era of fiction, and fifty years later, it has become a classic. Bold and inventive in style, Rechy is unflinching in his portrayal of one hustling 'youngman' and his search for self-knowledge within the neon-lit world of hustlers, drag queens, and the denizens of their world. As the narrator moves from El Paso to Times Square, from Pershing Square to the French Quarter, Rechy delivers a portrait of the edges of America that has lost none of its power to move and exhilarate."

Allowing for the hyperbole of book catalogues, the description is true enough. Rechy's book is a classic. But the catalogue description misleads in its attempt to distinguish Rechy's book from the other landmark gay novels that appeared in the early 1960s. After all, James Baldwin's Another Country preceded Rechy's book by a year and Isherwood's A Single Man followed it by a year. These novels, though less sensational, also provided a voice to hidden gay subcultures.

All three books are extraordinary contributions to gay male literature, but whereas the protagonists of Another Country and A Single Man embrace their sexual identities, the hustler narrator of City of Night, who provides a tour of the homosexual underworld, insists that he is not himself homosexual.

In his glbtq.com entry on Rechy, Gregory W. Bredbeck points out that sex in City of Night is a job not an identity. Only in his later novels Numbers (1967) and This Day's Death (1969) does Rechy explore homosexuality as an identity.

Bredbeck's analysis of the structure of City of Night deserves quoting at greater length. The novel, he points out, "documents the wanderings of a nameless male hustler from El Paso, to New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. This narrative is punctuated by recollections of the narrator's childhood in El Paso."

"The novel is structured by two types of chapters, accounts of the narrator's wanderings and character sketches of people he meets as a hustler. Each character sketch builds for the reader a knowable person, but then each narrative chapter immediately pulls the reader away and moves him or her onward."

"This technique," Bredbeck observes, "in many ways forces the reader into the position of hustler: 'knowing' someone, but only transiently and temporarily. This impermanence of human contact is mockingly displayed in the fact that the novel never provides a name for its narrator."

City of Night chronicles, brutally and lyrically and unforgettably, the pre-Stonewall sexual underworld. It presents haunting portraits of sad and brave characters, including a narrator who resists his own sexual identity.

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