City of Night was John Rechy’s first novel, and it almost overnight became a best-seller and an underground classic. Its description of parts of the gay subculture was more honest and detailed than had been attempted by writers before. In addition, the novel’s narrative framework and technical experimentation show Rechy’s indebtedness to other twentieth century writers such as James Joyce and John Dos Passos.
The novel demonstrates the growth of a gay awareness, although this awareness is not yet fully evolved in the book. Through the form of the Bildungsroman, the novel of the development of a protagonist’s character, Rechy captures the tortured life of his narrator and imbues it with dignity and meaning. The novel’s protagonist and structure are also indebted to the picaresque novel. Like the picaro, a hustler lives on the fringes of the law and survives by his wit and resourcefulness.
In several subsequent works, including Numbers (1967), This Day’s Death (1969), and Rushes (1979), Rechy continued his attempt to define gay male sexuality and identity. In all these works, questions of Latino identity were almost completely pushed aside. Although Rechy has claimed that all of his main characters are Latino, the emphasis on their ethnic, rather than sexual, identities came much later. There are few indications in City of Night, for example, apart from the narrator’s lapsed Catholicism and his recurrent feelings of guilt, that ethnic identification is central to his self-understanding. More recently, though, Rechy has investigated questions of Latino identity in his novels Bodies and Souls (1983) and The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez (1991). He has also written a best-selling nonfiction work, The Sexual Outlaw (1977), and several plays.