City of Night Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Based in part on John Rechy’s own experiences as an itinerant male prostitute in the late 1950’s, City of Night is a powerful evocation of a nameless narrator’s journey through the underside of America’s urban wastelands and a haunting description of the different people he encounters there.

City of Night is divided into four parts, roughly equivalent to the narrator’s stays in New York, Los Angeles, Hollywood, and New Orleans. It is further divided into short character sketches—named after the individuals who are described—that alternate with sections entitled “City of Night,” which propel the action forward. The entire novel is a first-person narrative told by the nameless narrator-protagonist, and all actions are filtered through his consciousness.

The novel begins in El Paso, Texas, the narrator’s hometown, with the death of his dog, an event that shapes his consciousness and to which he returns repeatedly throughout the novel. When the child is told that dogs cannot go to heaven, he experiences a loss of faith that is exacerbated by the fact that the dog’s decaying carcass has to be reburied because of its smell.

Both parents are impoverished Mexican immigrants, and the home offers the child no escape from the mother’s suffocating Catholicism and fierce, protective love and the father’s increasingly erratic and threatening behavior, which often manifests itself in terrifying rituals of affection. The narrator’s hatred of his father leads to both acts of rebellion and withdrawal from life. This emotional withdrawal increases his isolation so that his mirror becomes the most important object in his life; for him, it narcissistically confirms the reality of his undecayed, youthful body.

Restless after a tour of duty in the Army, the narrator hurls himself into the large cities of America, where he quickly learns to...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

City of Night Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Based on the author’s experiences, City of Night explores sexuality and spirituality as they develop during the protagonist’s quest for salvation. Combining Chicano heritage, autobiographical material, and a poetic rendering of the restless loneliness of America’s sexual underground, City of Night—John Rechy’s first and best-known novel—investigates difficulties and rewards of an individual’s search to claim the many identities that intersect in a single life.

The unnamed protagonist’s “journey through nightcities and nightlives—looking for . . . some substitute for salvation” begins with his childhood in El Paso, Texas. Rechy draws on stark, lonely imagery (the fiercely unforgiving wind, the father’s inexplicable hatred of his son, the mother’s hungry love) to portray a childhood and adolescence denied any sense of connection and certainty. Disconnected and detached from his home, the protagonist stands before the mirror confusing identity with isolation. He asserts a narcissistic removal from the world (“I have only me!”) that his quest at first confirms, then refutes.

The first-person narrative chronicles the protagonist’s wanderings through New York City, Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. For Rechy, these various urban settings are “one vast City of Night” fused into the “unmistakable shape of loneliness.” Working as a male prostitute, the protagonist...

(The entire section is 481 words.)