Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 255
City of Night was published in 1963 and was considered one of the first novels of the genre generally called gay literature. The narrator of this story is an unnamed young man, referred to as a hustler. He is traveling across the United States and visits many major cities along...
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- Critical Essays
City of Night was published in 1963 and was considered one of the first novels of the genre generally called gay literature. The narrator of this story is an unnamed young man, referred to as a hustler. He is traveling across the United States and visits many major cities along the way. In each location the traveler meets and builds relationships with a variety of different characters. Through these relationships the reader learns about gay life in the 1960s. The narrator is a male prostitute who lives in the “underworld” of cities. He tells his story in the first person, making the stories relatable and at times too close for comfort. The story starts in the narrator's hometown of El Paso. He is devastated by the death of his dog and is stifled by his parent’s Catholicism. He runs off to New York City where he starts his hustling career. He explores his own sexuality and gender expression. His work life blossoms and the narrator finds himself enjoying the company. Each client has a new story and expectation. Some clients want to feel comforted, while others prefer distance. Throughout the story the narrator visits Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and finally, New Orleans. Its here that the story culminates. The narrator meets Jeremy who seemingly gets the narrator to lower his guard. During Mardi Gras the narrator has a crisis of self and turns back towards the Catholic Church for understanding. He returns to El Paso with the sense that his journey is not over.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782
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 earn his livelihood as a male hustler. It is in New York that the characteristic pattern of the adult narrator’s life begins. He is obsessed by a need to be with and wanted by as many people as possible. Hustling seems to be the easiest way to fulfill these desires; as a hustler, the narrator maintains a heterosexual front, although in moments of intense introspection he sees through his own self-deception. His customers, called “scores,” neither expect reciprocal sexual acts, nor do they wish him to appear gay. Doing so would destroy their own sexual fantasies.
Most of the narrative provides a guided tour through different sections of the 1950’s gay subculture. In the hundreds of people the narrator encounters, he detects an overpowering loneliness camouflaged by various poses of defiance. Mr. King, one of the narrator’s first clients, pretends not to care about any human interaction; at the same time, though, he desperately tries to impress the narrator by dressing up for him, and during their second meeting even asks the narrator to move in with him. The Professor both disguises and articulates his feelings of hurt; he talks of love and keeps a scrapbook with pictures of his “angels,” but considers himself ugly and thus forced to buy sex. Even a fellow hustler, Pete, who has spent most of his life on the streets and is supposed to be tough and uncaring, drops his mask of heterosexual masculinity with the narrator; as a result, they never speak to each other again, because they both feel that they have violated the code of their trade.
Relentlessly, the narrative continues to explore the narrator’s hustling in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans. In between, he returns to El Paso. This city becomes a refuge for him, a retreat offering sanctuary from the life of the streets and a place to contemplate life behind the protective security of his window.
From Los Angeles to New Orleans, the narrator observes some of the more bizarre aspects of gay life, from the world of transvestites (Miss Destiny) to the sadomasochistic underground (Neil). The men who offer more than money for sex, that is, the possibility of bonding and affection, are immediately rejected. It is in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras, that the narrator encounters Jeremy Adams, a man who finally—although only briefly—breaks through most of the emotional barriers the narrator has erected. Yet even Jeremy does not succeed. Nevertheless, Mardi Gras brings about an emotional crisis of such proportions that the narrator calls a number of Catholic churches, only to be rejected by all but one, in a desperate attempt to find spiritual solace. At the end of the novel, he returns to El Paso and his window to give meaning to his life and experiences, aware that his quest is not yet over.