City of Night ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
American author John Rechy was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1931. His novel, City of Night, was a literary sensation when it was first published in 1963, a best seller, and now an acknowledged “modern classic.” It’s an unusual novel in that it has no story or plot to speak of and is written in a loosely structured, stream-of-consciousness style.
The novel is narrated in the voice of an unnamed “youngman.” (The words “young” followed by “man” are always one word in the novel.) The narrator is on a nighttime quest for acceptance and validation in America’s largest cities in, let us say, the late 1950s. He is a drunk, a “hustler,” a male prostitute, a versatile homosexual who will never (hardly ever) turn anybody down, no matter how creepy or repellant they are. He gets money in exchange for sex with (all kinds of) strangers, but money isn’t the real reason he does what he does. He does what he does out of loneliness and a need for acceptance.
What large American city the narrator is in doesn’t matter, because when it comes to the nighttime, urban sex scene, all cities are the same, whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, or New Orleans. His world is peopled by hustlers like himself, “scores” (men who pay hustlers for sex), sex-starved women, older men who prey on younger men in movie theatres or public toilets, “screaming queens” (gay men who try to be like women), and worn-out hustlers who no longer attract the kind of following they once had because their one saleable commodity, youthful sexual attractiveness, is not what it once was.
This one passage toward the end of City of Night encapsulates the novel perfectly:
Times Square, Pershing Square, Market Street, the concrete beach in Chicago…movie balconies, bars, dark hunting parks: fusing for me into one City…Yes, if I take the subway, I’ll be on 42nd Street. Or in Bryant Park, or on the steps of the library, waiting for Mr. King…or in the park in Chicago, also waiting…Or if I hitchhike on this street, I’ll be on Hollywood Boulevard, which will be lighted like a huge electric snake—and there, I’ll meet…
And ghostfaces, ghostwords, ghostrooms haunt me: Cities joined together by that emotional emptiness, blending with darkcity into a vastly stretching plain, into the city of night of the soul.
Despite its subject matter, City of Night is not overly sexually graphic by today’s standards. It was a “groundbreaking” novel for its time for its candor and explicitness, but that was fifty-seven years ago. What shocked people then does not necessarily shock them now.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp