IN HIS FIRST NOVEL, City of Night, John Rechy achieved what most authors strive for their entire career. A book that will last.
What grabbed the attention of the general reading public in 1963 was the story of a gay, male prostitute — obviously modeled on Rechy himself — on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance in a society that was not ready to accept him. City of Night introduced readers to a world inhabited by marginalized characters who are dealing with confusion of identity, sexuality, and gender. Male hustlers, drag queens, and johns, all creating artificial outer personas — carefully polished veneers — to camouflage and protect inner selves that are too vulnerable to expose to a harsh, judgmental world that would inevitably crush them.
I’ve often told the story, and it’s an absolute, vivid memory, about how when I was a teenager I was walking through a bookstore and Rechy’s City of Night practically jumped off the shelf into my arms begging me to read it. I started reading his novel right there in the store. I have never stopped reading it. Although it was long after the original publication, through City of Night Rechy taught me that my feelings of isolation could be released, that my experiences could be written. It was Rechy who showed me that no subject matter is taboo.
When it first appeared, the book became the publishing event of the season, much to Rechy’s surprise. “I didn’t expect it,” he admitted to me when I came to interview him, then added:
That's not humility. I don't like humility — actually it’s a very arrogant stance. I did think that the book was going to be hailed immediately as a superb work of a new young writer. That didn't happen then. But it hit The New York Times bestseller list even before the official publication date. That stunned me.
Rechy had opened his front door just moments earlier, greeting me warmly. As usual for interviews, he was dressed casually — he could have just been exercising. Although his T-shirt is more loosely fitting than in recent years, the legendary muscles underneath are still in evidence. In fact, Rechy tells me he remains as disciplined in his workouts as he does with his writing.
Rechy lives with his partner in the Hollywood Hills, far above the frantic pace of the street life that was once such an important part of his existence. People around Hollywood still remember Rechy from those earlier days. One admirer recently told me:
Years ago I was cruising the upper road at Griffith Park. I turned a corner and there ahead of me was an incredible sight: a handsome, extremely muscular man with nothing on but a skimpy bathing suit, standing by his convertible. His beautiful, oiled body was glistening in the sun. He was posing even though I didn’t see an audience. I was enamored by this living god and continued to be for years to come.
Today Rechy's home is one of those opulent hideaway houses whose location confuses even seasoned taxi drivers. He leads me past a grand, classic, Hollywood-style staircase to the posh den. "As a kid this house would have been my wildest dream," he says softly. Floor to ceiling glass doors lead out to the backyard. Beyond the garden two chairs are placed side by side looking out over the kind of fantasy Los Angeles view on glossy postcards.
Settled on facing sofas, over glasses of chilled white wine, with the late afternoon sun streaming in, we discussed aspects of Rechy’s many-layered lives and careers.
As with many groundbreaking works, when City of Night was originally published, critics were divided in their appraisals. Although it was one of the first American books to deal with what was called “the homosexual underground” in a very open, unflinching way, it immediately found a mainstream audience. It was talked about at smart cocktail parties and in highbrow literary circles. But it wasn’t a gimmick. The book was compelling and expertly crafted. A hustler wrote this? Many literati of the day were appalled. “The fact that I closely identified with the narrator-hustler disturbed some people,” Rechy explains. “Not every writer becomes a hustler on the streets and then writes about it! I think that focused identification on the narrator-as-hustler has unfairly extended at the expense of viewing me as a writer.”
Setting the tone for negative reviews for City of Night was a piece written by Alfred Chester for the prestigious New York Review of Books. The review ran under the derogatory title “Fruit Salad,” and even questioned whether a “John Rechy” really existed at all. But the critic seemed most angered by “the adorable photograph on the rear of the dust jacket.” Perhaps Chester’s strong distaste masked a gloomy fascination. Much of his own work explored an obsession with the homosexual subculture but without Rechy’s success. Even Chester’s good friend, the poet Edward Field, admits the critique was fueled by jealousy. “Chester knew that nothing like City of Night had appeared in America,” Field says, “It killed him that Rechy got there first.” Rechy goes further:
A lot of writers have written about courting hustlers, not from the intimate point of view of hustlers — who, stereotypically they often insist, must be dumb, and so beyond desiring them, they could feel superior — but not if the hustler turned out to be even smarter.
It outraged some in the literary establishment that Rechy was unabashedly sexual. And not only that, he kept right on cruising and hustling as he continued to be a force in the literary world. His work was successful in a way that theirs never would be. Rechy puts some of the blame for this kind of criticism on what he bluntly calls “penis envy.” Rechy asserts,
The implied desirability of the narrator aroused envy in some males. Some of the worst reviews I have gotten were written by gay men who wrote about hustlers, from the point of view of the buyer. I wrote from the point of view of the hustler.
Legendary poet Frank O’Hara, always fair and levelheaded in his critiques, supported Rechy’s theory that some of the more vicious reviews were motivated by envy. “I cannot but be convinced that Rechy not only has his own voice,” O’Hara observed in his review, “but also that it has an almost hypnotic effect on other writers, which is able to bring out all sorts of bitchy and flatulent attitudes which are otherwise cleverly hidden in conditioned, or assumed, stylistics.” O’Hara ended his critique by stating, “The hero is a hustler but the author is not.”
Another early reviewer called Rechy an “accidental writer,” perhaps because the prose of City of Night feels effortless, as if the descriptions and experiences simply spilled out onto the paper. In the pages of his first novel, Rechy gives the impression he was writing at white heat in a slangy stream of consciousness. In actuality the book was carefully worked and reworked through at least seven full drafts. “Nothing about my writing was or is accidental," Rechy says. “I’m very concerned with structure, language.”
Even as the manuscript was set to go to print Rechy began a last-minute line-by-line rewrite. He offered to pay for the corrections himself. The publishers, however, agreed to the editorial changes and the publication was postponed. In the anniversary edition’s facsimile galley pages we see glimpses of Rechy’s high literary standards when revising his own work. In his final rewrite, sentences are sharpened, punctuation changed. Whole segments are crossed out or rewritten as he polishes and transforms the details of his life’s experiences.
Rechy’s meticulous critical sense paid off. In a cover blurb for the novel, James Baldwin noted the “discipline” that allowed Rechy to achieve his “beautiful recklessness.” But even more important to Rechy than the many favorable reviews that started appearing was the praise he was to receive from the general public. “I got literally hundreds of letters,” Rechy tells me.
The recurring motif was that in this whole world there was a place for them, they weren't alone. There were others like them. The letters came from males and females, gay and “straight.” At the time some University heard about these letters and wanted to buy them. That offended me. The idea that those intimate letters would be turned into some kind of case study. So I burned them all.
John Rechy was born in El Paso, Texas. His parents, who had migrated from Mexico, had been affluent but gradually became impoverished during the depression. Rechy graduated from Texas Western College with help from a journalism scholarship. In New York, where he hoped to continue to study creative writing, he found himself at the notorious YMCA. It was there he was told that he could make money on the streets of Times Square as a hustler. That was a defining moment in his life and career. It was an awakening that set him on the journey that would lead to City of Night.
“I want to be known as a writer with a unique life who has transformed that life into literature,” Rechy says. With City of Night he succeeded. City of Night blends Rechy’s poetic vision with his journalistic eye for detail, and he makes his misfit characters yearnings, burnings, and alienation feel universal. The book documents its time, a time when homosexuality was illegal, and still described in medical books as a mental illness. It is one of the best firsthand accounts of what it was like to be gay in the mid-20th century — ostracized — separate from the mainstream world. It reveals, through its characters, how young men couldn't admit, even to themselves, that they were what society deemed perverted. Rechy recalls. “I remember on a New York subway I saw a man reading a book; I could recognize it right away as City of Night although he had wrapped a different jacket around it.”
The novel is built with beautiful prose. Whether writing about a tawdry street corner, some seedy hotel room, or the lurid bars, Rechy is alive to the delicate emotions exposed in such places, and, with the eye of a poet, he is able to transform these encounters into something tender, fragile, and lyrical:
I looked startled at this man in bed with me, and hes staring back as if he had in a secret way shared in the disturbing revery of other faces; the faces which we attempt unsuccessfully to erase with new ones: which continue to haunt us as if in judgment for nothing really given, nothing really shared…. The dark, dark city…. The city of night of the soul.
After its publication Rechy never sat down and reread City of Night cover to cover. He picks it up nowadays when someone wants to use an excerpt for something or if he is doing a reading. “Recalling the actual people I transformed into characters — that would make me sad,” Rechy explains. “I feel guilty when I wonder what happened to them. But there is this consolation: every time somebody starts reading this book, they'll come to life again.”
Characters like Pete, the young street hustler, with his cocksure attitude, jaunty walk, and hipster’s way of talking. He’s the one who proclaims that “whatever a guy does with other guys, if he does it for money, that don’t make him queer. You’re still straight.” That’s Pete’s charade — his way of dealing with and exploring his homosexuality, but it’s a ruse the narrator shares. The two friends communicate only to each other’s facade, their friendship all surface, until one night these too-tough Times Square hustlers spend the night in the narrator’s drab apartment.
There, Rechy reveals the poetry of two young lost souls, craving tenderness, yet too frightened to explore their buried sexual feelings for each other. There is a hint of a romantic connection in that squalid room, but they are both terrified by their own feelings and crushed by society’s view of what they are hiding. Love is not allowed. This “hustler love scene,” which Gore Vidal identified as one of his favorites, is a perfect rendering of the unsure encounter, the delicate moments at the beginning of an uncertain romance.
Rechy continued to struggle with his own vulnerabilities as his need to be sexually desired grew more urgent. “Theres just two ages anyway,” a character in City of Night observes, “youngman and oldman.” After its publication, Rechy, his age murkily sandwiched somewhere between those two extremes, led a bizarrely divided life. He continued hustling the streets and the parks even as he published a steady stream of books — fifteen to date. Simultaneously he became a respected teacher at UCLA and in private workshop classes he gave from his home. Sometimes his carefully compartmentalized worlds collided, as on the evening he was standing shirtless on Hollywood Boulevard, his muscular torso on full display, when one of his students happened to pass by. “Good evening, Professor Rechy,” the bemused student shouted, “Out for an evening stroll?”
The streets were his turf, but as the years ticked by Rechy began to feel more and more vulnerable, and started to see his life heading down the dark road that befell many of the characters he had met and written about. “I had always thought of suicide at a certain age,” Rechy tells me. “But I kept reaching that age and then putting it off. Then I met Michael and that changed my life entirely.”
Rechy met his partner, Michael, in the late 1970s in a gay cruising area but, as Rechy recalls, “for the first time ever I had the feeling of truly wanting someone.” It was the one encounter that developed into something much more than a trick. “It was my first experience with mutual desire,” Rechy says, and it has lasted. “A writer wrote that he found it remarkable that my seemingly inevitably tragic life shifted to one of the most romantic love stories in gay literature,” Rechy says. “I’m very happy leading a solitary life with Michael. Finally, a peaceful life.”
Although Rechy’s subsequent books, like Bodies and Souls and especially The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, have continued to grow in recognition and popularity, and Rechy has received many prestigious awards in recognition for his body of work, it’s his debut novel that remains his most popular. Rechy muses. “Well, I'm glad I didn't die young so I could meet Michael and so that I would go on to write a full body of work to be remembered for, and not just City of Night. And as long as my other books are there, they are there to be discovered.”
In City of Night, Rechy shows that people create alter egos to disguise that they are afraid. They fear being judged and rejected. They are lonely and want to be accepted for who they truly are, but all the while are constructing disguises, wearing masks. Rechy lived the mask, as did many of his contemporaries, and it continued beyond the Stonewall Era.
Christopher Isherwood, who would befriend Rechy, observed, “John Rechy shows great comic and tragic talent. He is truly a gifted novelist.” Yet no one of the era could have foreseen that City of Night would become a landmark work in gay literature and hailed all over the world as an American classic. As new readers in generations to come discover Rechy's cast of peculiar, funny, sad, yet endearingly determined characters, they will relate to the basic, raw emotions of one human being trying to connect to another, struggling to find acceptance and to be loved. As with all lasting literature, they will read City of Night through their own eyes, in their own way. “I suppose if I had died having written only City of Night,” Rechy says wryly, his voice turning gruff, “I would have satisfied the demands for becoming legendary.”
Charles Casillo is the author of Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy and other books.