In three important novels of the American literature of homosexuality—Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and John Rechy's City of Night—there is a changing relationship between the two poles of the "gay world" and the personal homosexual relationship, with the gay world as an emerging metaphor. The culmination of this emergence occurs, I think, in Rechy's novel, where the "gay world" and all its parts overwhelm not only the possibility of any relationship implying human involvement, but also the existence of the particular characters who would form this relationship if they could, and especially the existence of what is meant to be the center of focus in that novel, the narrator as character, and where it functions as a metaphor for a destructive and despair-ridden American reality. The America of these novels is the possibility of a vast hell always defining a smaller and intense personal hell.
That the "gay world" is seen literally as the threat to the individual homosexual trying to love and to define himself is understandable…. The feeling is that this world can explain both how hard it is to love in America and how necessary it is to love in America. In this last respect, the function of the "gay world" in these novels is in part rhetorical, serving to establish the necessity of love (not to love is to achieve this terrible world), and in part sociological, serving to establish causes for the failure of love.
The human beings who emerge, then, from these novels are beings who exist in a lonely, love-mad culture, and who seek to define themselves in the destructive context of that culture. (pp. 195-96)
The City and the Pillar, Giovanni's Room, and City of Night represent, I think, stages in the discovery and development of the possibilities of using a part of homosexual life as a metaphor for an American reality…. In City of Night the metaphor seems corrupt and out of control. (p. 197)
[The] hustler's world is almost the totality of the novel, for the novel's hero's relationship to this world is not one of attraction, but is one of complete entrance and submergence, so that he is always seen from within this world.
The presence then of the "I," the narrator, of this novel is rather implicit than explicit, and seems throughout to be overwhelmed by a large body of material which can only be held together in two respects—by the metaphorical implications of that material, and by the presentation on the literal level of plot of a fairly precise relationship between the individual homosexual and the hustler's world which he encounters. The particulars of the hustler's world, with its many parts, repetitions and variations, are intended to be related to an image of America in the novel which reveals that the hustler's world and the larger American context are analogous to each other, and that the male prostitute's world—really an extension of the "gay world"—is the metaphor for that larger context. The theme of Rechy's "I," in the guise of autobiography, beginning the novel with a remembrance of childhood, and ending the novel with a dialectic on love and a personal Ash Wednesday, is rarely felt in the body of this work, and then is brought in almost perfunctorily, as for instance in the novel's Los Angeles section. But it seems to be Rechy's intention to make each of the geographical sections of the novel mark a stage in the development of the "I." (p. 200)
That Rechy means his reader to make an identification between the hustler's world and the American reality, to see the one as representing the other, is perhaps clear from the relatively brief Chicago section of his novel. His image of Chicago is not a hustler's Chicago—rather it is a city seen in terms of various images of poverty, drunkeness, and loneliness. (p. 201)
And that Rechy means to see his male prostitute's world as...
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Rechy's City of Night follows in its way much the same path that Kerouac traced in On the Road, eastside, westside and all around the country. And part of his desire—wild reaching of the writer's organism—is to swing this huge cityscape wordwise with a series of variations on the theme of the male hustlers' experiences in the homerotic world through which his narrator wanders. The novel is sure to be read as a confessional exposé documenting the night side of homosexual life. Which it is. But it seems to me that Rechy has a deeper than confessional interest in the nationwide sexual skid road he writes about. The determining factor there is not so much this, that or some other sexual inclination, but what is much worse, a starved male impotence so pervasive that any momentary recognition of sexual existence at all is the real dime some buddy may be persuaded to spare. That his narrator is searching for the sources of this impotence accounts for the at times strict, almost clinical aspects of the journey. But a deeper striving, some dream of the father, causes the writer to swing his huge city of dreadful male night at the strong wrist of what is at times a heroic writing nerve and style. (pp. 155-56)
Warren Tallman, "The Writing Life" (copyright © 1976 by Warren Tallman; reprinted by permission of the author), in Open Letter, Third Series, No. 6, Winter, 1976–77, pp. 150-58.
[The Sexual Outlaw is a] fictionalized "non-fiction" account of a "true spectrum of the [homosexual] promiscuous experience", three days and nights in the life of Jim ("sometimes Jerry, sometimes John") alias John Rechy….
By a quantitative measure, this sexual marathon seems to rate highly. And yet The Sexual Outlaw is not erotic, and is unlikely to excite anyone but a member of the Festival of Light. The "youngmen" (Rechy's own curious word) Jim, etc, encounters … are so lightly characterized as to be as enticing as a rubber model filled with warm water….
The interest is in "Jim" alone, his body-building, his naive pride in his good looks …, and his obsession with "scoring". However the nakedness of the exposure of this obsession lends the book a certain raw energy, without which it would be intolerable. It is still a long way behind Rechy's first book, City of Night, which was published in 1964. This uncovered for many the world of the male hustler, and moved by its often powerful reticence and its ability to create memorably comic characters. City of Night was overwritten and pretentious, too, but since then Rechy has progressed to the dizzy height of a teacher of creative writing at the University of California at Los Angeles, and his novels have become more consciously arty. Thus The Sexual Outlaw begins with quotations from Camus and Melville, and ends with a satisfying...
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