City of Night

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

The unnamed narrator of City of Night flees from his stifling home and community in El Paso, Texas, to the sexual skid rows of New York, Los Angeles, and other cities. The book alternates chapters entitled “City of Night”—sociological sketches of the world of gay prostitutes, young drug addicts, old winos—with vignettes of individuals who populate that world.

The narrator becomes a male prostitute. He maintains his sense of heterosexual masculinity by allowing gay men to perform sexual acts on him only in return for money, while he never reciprocates or shows any emotional response to their offers of friendship or love. The narrator is addicted to the anarchy of street life, to the seething shadowy world of New York’s Times Square and similar sex and drug supermarkets.

His vignettes offer portraits of Pete, who teaches the narrator the rules of sexual hustling; Miss Destiny, a beautiful, well-educated drag queen who lives in a fragile world of illusion and shows the narrator that, underneath the exciting aura of anarchic freedom offered by the city of night, its inhabitants are all trapped by their desires and fears; and Jeremy, who offers the narrator love, from which he flees in fear.

The narrator learns hard lessons about himself, about his loneliness, and about his need for the love that he fears acknowledging. He understands that the city of night is partly a product of the darkness of his own soul.

Impact

Larry McMurtry, James Baldwin, and other major writers recognized Rechy as an important new voice in American literature, and Rechy’s best-selling book was translated into many other languages and would later be taught in many literature courses. However, the novel, written before the advent of the gay liberation movement, deeply offended many critics. Even friendly critics hurt Rechy’s literary career by labeling him as a gay writer,...

(The entire section is 801 words.)