Tuesday, August 31, 2004

John Rechy: City of Night

I do not usually read what are today referred to as ‘gay’ books, since I am not of the homosexualist persuasion. (Though I have to admit that my daughter once asked me why it was that all my friends were gay. I felt obliged to point out that I did have one or two friends who could pass for straight – at any rate on a dark night, and provided you ignored the way they walked.) Anyway, when clearing out a bookshelf yesterday (as one does, if only to make room for new stuff), I came across a classic which deserves a mention here.

The book, of course, is City of Night, by John Rechy. And it’s still in print, I see, after forty years. This is a novel, allegedly, and in the 1960s I once had an argument with a gay friend about whether it could have been written if the author had not actually lived the life which is described in it. My friend argued that the story couldn’t possibly have been invented, and that it must all, basically, be true. I took the view that it could, in theory, have been a work of pure invention. And I still hold that opinion today, though in reality I don’t think there is much doubt that the book is heavily autobiographical.

City of Night, in summary, is a first-person account of the life of a male prostitute in urban America, presumably in the 1950s and early ’60s That description probably makes the book sound sordid, and I guess in a way it is; but many people have found it rewarding and it seems to be taught at Yale, for heaven’s sake. I had thought that American universities had succumbed to political correctness to such an extent that all that could be studied there these days was the King James version of the Bible. But apparently not.

John Rechy’s famous novel begins with a couple of paragraphs which, for my money, constitute the most mesmerising start of any novel ever written. But I have to admit that my circumstances are unusual and my reaction is probably atypical. Here is what Rechy says:

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 darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.

Remember Pershing Square and the apathetic palmtrees. Central Park and the frantic shadows. Movie theatres in the angry morning-hours. And wounded Chicago streets…

And so on.

Once Rechy has completed a chapter on his – sorry, his character’s – early life in El Paso (which isn’t very interesting), he begins to talk about the life of a male hustler in and around Times Square, which is interesting. At least to me, because it just so happens that the ten blocks or so which surround 42nd Street constitute an area which I was once very familiar with.

I first went to America in 1958, when I was a very impressionable eighteen years old. I had just spent seven years in an English public school, a school which in terms of its attitudes, beliefs and judgements was not so much out of date as stuck in a time warp, back in the nineteenth century. And, when I first began to walk the streets of New York, what is now described as the culture shock was enormous. The sheer wealth and size and richness of America, not to mention its sexuality, knocked me sideways. It was as if I had just been released from a long sentence in prison.

In those far-off days I had a job which involved working in the centre of Manhattan – on West 41st Street to be precise – and I would typically finish work somewhere between midnight and three a.m. Afterwards I would perhaps go for a meal in one of the cheap eating-houses, or see a movie in one of the many cinemas on 42nd Street, or walk a few blocks north to the Metropole Café, where all the great jazz names performed sooner or later. And then I would walk back to my room, down on 26th Street. So I think I can safely say that, one way and another, I saw a glimpse or two of John Rechy’s world -- if only, I hasten to add, as an outsider. Certainly even I was aware of the youngmen, as Rechy calls them, and their middle-aged, desperate, frantic customers.

Until yesterday I had not read Rechy’s opening lines for about 38 years, but I have never forgotten them. Because they encapsulate the way in which I came to think of America, at least for a while. And if I ever want to remember what it felt like to be eighteen, all I have to do is read the first few chapters of City of Night and I can smell and see and feel every detail.

Later on in his text, Rechy says this:
...even before I got there, New York had become a symbol of my liberated self, and I knew that it was in a kind of turbulence that that self must attempt to find itself.
Once again, I find my own thoughts and ambitions, as an eighteen-year-old, mirrored exactly by Rechy's words. I went to New York, from England, precisely in order to 'find myself'. Though as it happens I chose to do so in ways rather different from those preferred by Rechy. Is it any wonder that I have kept this book, and remembered its hypnotic opening, for so long?

My old paperback copy of City of Night (dating from 1965) is falling to pieces. The back has become detached, the pages are loose, and the paper is turning a nasty brown colour. But it has been returned to the shelf.

8 comments:

Herself said...

Coincidence? I was just thinking of flooded New Orleans, presntly being rousted as if the entire city were one of the seedier bars in Rechy's first novel and of his own descriptions of it as a doomed city -- dug out my own copy of the book and find myself, suddenly, two-thirds of the way through it, seeing once again a world that I, like you, experienced only at the dimmest margins in reality.

Whatever else one might say of that sprawling, structured, affected, candid novel, it is vivid in a way few works are. It could have been a work of pure invention, but would it have been as real? I don't know.

On the wider stage I wonder if the smug whitebread types looking on from Washington D. C. have all along viewed New Orleans as little more than a dive for hustlers, their scores, lost girls and queens, for alcoholics, prostitutes and pimps, and were only too pleased to see it flooded, burning, and emptied by sweating, angry police?

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