Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176
The semi-autobiographical novel emphasizes themes of identity formation, primarily gender and sexual, but also ethnic. The unnamed narrator locates himself in the Chicano cultural environment of the Texas-Mexico border where he grew up. He considers the effects of Catholicism and machismo. The differing milieus of various U. S. cities in...
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- Critical Essays
The semi-autobiographical novel emphasizes themes of identity formation, primarily gender and sexual, but also ethnic. The unnamed narrator locates himself in the Chicano cultural environment of the Texas-Mexico border where he grew up. He considers the effects of Catholicism and machismo. The differing milieus of various U. S. cities in the 1950s in attitudes toward gay people is another important theme. As he circles back to Texas, the theme of home as both physical location and spiritual identity emerges as well.
For the most part, the narrator's coming of age as a gay man dominates his self analysis. Leaving El Paso, he joins the army and, upon release, he begins aimlessly drifting around the States. His casual occupation in having sexual relations with men, often paid, dominates much of the book.
Finding such casual encounters unfulfilling, he looks for deeper relationships. Reconciling personal views with the partner's image, he finds his first love in New Orleans. But the realization that he must address, on many levels, where he comes from sends him back to El Paso.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572
At the most basic level, the novel is a psychological study of the narrator and his quest for meaning in life. The makeup of his family—the mother’s fierce love and the father’s inexplicable hatred—seem designed to push the narrator into homosexuality, thus giving expression to a view commonly held at the time of the writing of the novel. Seen in its entirety, the novel is an elaborate investigation of the narrator’s fragmented identity. Since he refuses to reveal his name throughout the narrative, he deliberately frustrates a reader’s normal expectations to get to know him fully. In fact, all the more elaborately described characters the narrator encounters during his wanderings are carefully chosen to create a contrast to his murky identity. At the same time, this narrative technique allows the reader to imagine the life of a hustler. Like the narrator, the reader meets a character, is drawn into his life for a short period of time, and then as abruptly withdraws. This is underscored by the fact that the narrator attempts to create complicity between the reader and himself by addressing the reader several times directly as “you”; he seems to crave the reader’s approval (or, perhaps, absolution). In the same way that the narrator assumes the role of confessor for his clients, the reader becomes the narrator’s confessor (or psychologist). Thus the novel can be read as a sustained cry for help, and the comfort that is wished for comes through the telling of the tale; that is, the narrative itself can be read as part of the therapy to heal the narrator’s wounded self.
The novel explores the narrator’s refusal to accept death and decay. His inability to face this most basic of human conditions leads him, by his own explanation, into hustling; he has lost faith in religion, so other people’s desire for his youthful body becomes a substitute for salvation. This crisis of faith is not brought to a complete and satisfying resolution, but the loneliness that the novel so eloquently investigates provides a thematic and structural unity.
Apart from toying with questions of identity, the novel critiques a social system that by law discriminates against those with a different sexual orientation. While the novel tends to fixate on the pathological nature of the people the narrator encounters, the cry against social injustice, not yet fully articulated in political and social terms, cannot be ignored.
All these ideas are tightly interwoven in a circular structure. The novel begins and ends with the narrator’s memory of his dog’s death and the unresolved crisis of faith that this event precipitated. After all, the anarchy the narrator senses in himself throughout the novel is nothing but the fear of sharing the dog’s fate: to grow old and to die. His inability to form meaningful relationships with other people must be seen in light of this. Relationships seem futile to him, because they offer what he considers false hope: the idea of permanence. Yet since the novel ends where it began, it also offers an element of hope. The narrator has come back to where his psychological crisis started, and the reader is left with the impression that when the narrator ventures forth again from his window, he will do so with a fuller understanding of himself and even greater compassion for those people he will encounter.
Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136
City of Night is more than a journey into the underbelly of America's urban wastelands in the 1950s. It is also an exploration of hedonism, homosexuality, and identity crises.
The crisis of faith is a prevalent theme, with the narrator regularly mentioning the death of his dog and being told that dogs cannot go to heaven.
Another theme is criticism of legal and sociopolitical systems which encourage prejudice against anybody on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The search for meaning in life is another thread that runs through this book. A difficult childhood, characterized by the love of his mother and the hatred of his father, seems to have led the narrator to prostitution and a fragmented identity.
A final and obvious theme is male prostitution, which is the career that our narrator embarks upon.
Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 130
The entirety of City of Night seems like an exercise in the narrator (who strongly resembles the author) attempting to piece together an identity for not only himself, but for all members of the LGBTQ community as it includes some commentary on the events surrounding the Cooper Do-nuts Riot. It stands to reason, then, that personal identity is a strong theme throughout the events of the novel.
The novel pulls no punches in its depiction of the life of a hustler and the casual encounters that the narrator has as he travels across the country. The archetype of the gay man and the hustler controls much of the narrator's self-image, and it is not until the end of the novel that he yearns for deeper relationships and more concrete identity.