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City of Night, John Rechy, Grove Press, 1963, 400 pp
Oh the places I go in My Big Fat Reading Project! At #7 on the 1963 bestseller list, this novel was a ground breaker in gay fiction. I had never heard of it but my cohort in the Literary Snobs reading group knew all about it. In some ways it was unlike anything I have ever read while in other ways it felt familiar compared to some of the Beat fiction I have read.
Largely autobiographical, the story follows a young man through his peripatetic nightlife as a hustler in the dark streets of El Paso, Times Square, Pershing Square (in Los Angeles), the French Quarter of New Orleans, and the Mission District of San Francisco. His lonely, frenetic existence is portrayed as a search for identity and connection but the milieu in which he searches is a desperate world of disconnection and confused identities, made up of hustlers, queens, secret slumming homosexual men, and sad women, a few of whom are lesbians. In fact, there are few women in the book and those few seemed like stereotypes.
What was brought home to me is how horrid life could be for gay people in mid-twentieth century America. So much secrecy, confusion, guilt and personal disintegration was necessarily their plight. Though the endless rehashing of similar scenes got to be too much for me as a reader, I wondered if life is much better for gay persons in our present time.
I can't really know because I am heterosexual and though I have gay friends there is a reticence between us when it comes to talking about sexual orientation. Is that my doing? I want to ask about or discuss what that aspect of their lives is like but I feel shy about doing so. I was raised to be homophobic and confess that it took some doing to get over that prejudice. Mostly, it took reading books.
So I thank the writers who have opened their hearts and minds in their novels and memoirs, their essays and poetry. I don't mean to sound disingenuous, but like someone who hated a certain food as a kid but grew up to like it, I can barely remember what it was like to harbor that homophobia in the past. Yet, I feel more comfortable with olives than I do with my fellow human beings whose sexual orientation is different from mine.
In any case, City of Night was a wild, sometimes uncomfortable read that brought me more understanding of what is means to be human. It also made me sorrow for the ways we mistreat each other.
(City of Night is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)