JOHN RECHY’S City of Night was published fifty years ago. The novel is a frank account of the adventures of a male hustler who wanders restlessly around the country in the late 1950s, turning tricks as much for self-affirmation as for money, and scrupulously avoiding any romantic attachment. The book is partly a travelogue, offering a pano-rama of the gay underworld in (chiefly) New York, L.A., and New Orleans, and partly a portrait gallery, with little cameos of clients (“johns”), other hustlers, and drag queens.
City of Night was understood immediately to be path-breaking, opening the way for works like Faggots and Dancer from the Dance in the following decade. But it also had one foot in the past: nearly all the gay men it depicts are bitchy, dejected, lonesome, or hysterical, confirming the stereotype that homosexuals can never be happy. And the narrator doesn’t just describe, but implicitly endorses, the rigid hierarchy of the world he moves in, with queens and pathetic old johns at the bottom, “masculine homosexuals” in the middle, and young, quasi-straight hustlers at the top. So, if the novel is a landmark in gay writing, what it marks is the beginning, not the end, of the transition from the gay “problem novel” of the ’40s and ’50s to the “liberated” fiction of the ’70s and ’80s.
I can say without hesitation that anyone interested in the history of gay writing in America must read City of Night. But I have a harder time deciding whether the book is any damn good.
The year it appeared, 1963, was also the year of the New York newspaper strike that shuttered The New York Times Book Review and led a group of editors and writers to establish The New York Review of Books. The second issue of the new journal featured a blistering review of Rechy’s book, unhappily titled “Fruit Salad,” by the brilliant but deranged Alfred Chester. Chester might be thought of as the Dale Peck of his day, a passionate, slashing critic whose accounts of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Nabokov’s Pale Fire are venomous and dead-on. No one who reads Chester can ever feel quite the same about those works again.