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[399] City of Night – John Rechy

” And ghostfaces, ghostwords, ghostrooms haunt me: Cities joined together by that emotional emptiness, blending with dark-city into a vastly stretching plain, into the city of night of the soul. ” (372)

Books that make one sad do not limit to the ones about death, destruction, catastrophes and disasters. City of Night is unflinching in its portrayal of life on the streets, from which male hustlers, drag queens, and men on every kind of make squeeze every inch of nightlife. Percolated in the neon-lit world of nightlife is a darkness, safely guarded, called loneliness. At the center of this “underworld” is the unnamed narrator, of Latino descent, from El Paso. He embarks on a journey to New York and across the country to Los Angeles, San Francisco, then Chicago, and finally New Orleans to shred a remote childhood, with a “desperately strange craving to be in a world without himself.” (120)

Theres no love in this harsh world. Everybody’s hunting for something–but what? (40)

In a world that deals, from the beginning, with repressed sexdreams (irregularly capitalized and composite words are Rechy’s device to bring visual emphasis) he lives a life on the brink of panic. His childhood innocence indelibly scarred by his father’s abuse, his ego needs constant reassurance in numbers. His hustling brings him into into contact with all kind of people, hustlers, drag queens and scores alike, who are in pursuit of momentary pleasure and monetary gain in a neon-lit jungle. They are social outcasts and world wearies. There’s Skipper’s broken Hollywood dream, Miss Destiny’s drag wedding, Chuck’s lost horse, a professor’s lost angel, Lance’s unrequited love, and a married man’s escape from an unhappy marriage. Although the narrator’s relationship to the others is sexualized, brief, and transactional, it’s through these sexually compulsive encounters that he gradually comes to terms with himself.

I had an acute sense of the incompleteness intrinsic in sharing in another’s life. You touch those other lives, barely—however intimate it may be sexually—you may sense things roiling in them. Yet the climax in your immediate relationship with them is merely an interlude. (82)

City of Night is percolated with a sore sense of loneliness and melancholy. One feels depression and loneliness hammering at the senses. Depicted so vividly is an underworld that, out of the darkness and the shadowed loneliness, people try to find a substitute for love, for salvation, for the way out of the hostile world. There’s a suppressed fear—of not being wanted, of not being loved. When one cannot acknowledge the bare possibility of love, sex becomes the substitute. It’s showing a world in which everyone is finding alternative ways to cope with reality that are only momentary, in order to justify the meaningless struggle toward death. The life is one that cannot afford to hope for future, because “tomorrow, like death, is inevitable but not thought of.” (148) This book is both humbling and liberating in documenting a slice of America that even today is treated upon with hushed silence. The nightmare existence is explored with a clarity and vividness with no self-pity.

380 pp. Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. Wow, this sounds pretty intense and unusual. I enjoy books that explore under-written-about slices of American life; this sounds like a good example. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • It’s a disservice to categorize this as GLBT fiction alone because it does speak about the underworlds of American culture. Whether people like it or not, or they hush-hush about their existence, they do exist. It’s very well-written.

  2. I guess the fact that the main character is unnamed further enforces the loneliness theme that underlies everything in this book. It sounds like a book that would make me sad too.

    • Loneliness is key and is so powerful throughout the entire book. From one city to another, from one bar to the next disco, with parties and drinking galore, the unnamed narrator is in touch with only loneliness that is so stifling that he is afraid to love another human being.

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