City of Nightby John Rechy
“One of the major books to be published since World War II.” —The Washington Post
When John Rechy’s explosive first novel appeared in 1963, it marked a radical departure from all other novels of its kind, and gave voice to a subculture that had never before been revealed with such acuity. It earned comparisons to Genet and Kerouac, even as Rechy was personally attacked by scandalized reviewers. Nevertheless, the book became an international best-seller and ushered in a new era of fiction, and fifty years later, it has become a classic. Bold and inventive in style, Rechy is unflinching in his portrayal of one hustling “youngman” and his search for self-knowledge within the neon-lit world of hustlers, drag queens, and the denizens of their world. As the narrator moves from El Paso to Times Square, from Pershing Square to the French Quarter, Rechy delivers a portrait of the edges of America that has lost none of its power to move and exhilarate.
“One of the major books to be published since World War II.” —The Washington Post
“City of Night is a remarkable book. . . . Mr. Rechy writes in an authentic jive-like slang: the nightmare existence is explored with a clarity not often clouded by sentimentality and self-pity. The book therefore has the unmistakable ring of candor and truth.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Rechy’s tone rings absolutely true, is absolutely his own, and he has the kind of discipline which allows him a rare and beautiful recklessness. tells the truth, and tells it with such passion that we are forced to share in the life he conveys. This is a most humbling and liberating achievement.” —James Baldwin
“Both shocking and suffuse with longing, a combo that can make an adolescent boy circa 1966 lose his mind.” —Richard Price, from his “My Five Most Essential Books” published in Newsweek (April 13, 2009)
“Probably no first novel is so complete, so well held together, and so important as City of Night.” —The Houston Post
“[City of Night] illuminates, it stirs the heart, it is unforgettable.” —Herbert Gold
“When I came across it as a teenager, it knocked me out. . . . City of Night has influenced every gay novel since. It’s the paradoxes in Rechy—assertiveness and vulnerability, intellect and street-tough image—that make him so compelling to this day.” —Charles Casillo, author of Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy
Selected by John Waters as a The Good Men Project Best LGBT Books of All Time
Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night stretching gaudily from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard—jukebox-winking, rock-n-roll-moaning: America at night fusing its dark cities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.
Remember Pershing Square and the apathetic palm trees. Central Park and the frantic shadows. Movie theaters in the angry morning-hours. And wounded Chicago streets. . . . Horror movie courtyards in the French Quarter–tawdry Mardi Gras floats with clowns tossing out glass beads, passing dumbly like life itself. . . Remember rock-n-roll sex music blasting from jukeboxes leering obscenely, blinking many-colored along the streets of America strung like a cheap necklace from 42nd Street to Market Street, San Francisco. . . .
One-night sex and cigarette smoke and rooms squashed in by loneliness. . . .
And I would remember lives lived out darkly in that vast City of Night, from all-
night movies to Beverly Hills mansions.
But it should begin in El Paso, that journey through the cities of night. Should begin in El Paso, in Texas. And it begins in the Wind. . . .
In a Southwest windstorm with the gray clouds like steel doors locking you in the world from Heaven.
I cant remember now how long that windstorm lasted–it might have been days–but perhaps it was only hours—because it was in that timeless time of my boyhood, ages six through eight.
My dog Winnie was dying. I would bring her water and food and place them near her, stand watching intently—but she doesn’t move. The saliva kept coming from the edges of her mouth. She had always been fat, and she had a crazy crooked grin—but she was usually sick: Once her eyes turned over, so that they were almost completely white and she couldn’t see–just lay down, and didn’t try to get up for a day. Then she was well, briefly, smiling again, wobbling lopsidedly.
Now she was lying out there dying.
At first the day was beautiful, with the sky blue as it gets only in memories of Texas childhood. Nowhere else in the world, I will think later, is there a sky as clear, as blue, as Deep as that. I will remember other skies: like inverted cups, this shade of blue or gray or black, with limits, like painted rooms. But in the Southwest, the sky was millions and millions of miles deep of blue–clear, magic, electric blue. (I would stare at it sometimes, inexplicably racked with excitement, thinking: If I get a stick miles long and stand on a mountain, I’ll puncture Heaven—which I thought of then as an island somewhere in the vast sky—and then Heaven will come tumbling down to earth. . . .) Then, that day, standing watching Winnie, I see the gray clouds massing and rolling in the horizon, sweeping suddenly terrifyingly across the sky as if to battle, giant mushrooms exploding, blending into that steely blanket. Now you’re locked down here so Lonesome suddenly you’re cold. The wind sweeps up the dust, tumbleweeds claw their way across the dirt. . . .
I moved Winnie against the wall of the house, to shelter her from the needlepointed dust. The clouds have shut out the sky completely, the wind is howling violently, and it is Awesomely dark. My mother keeps calling me to come in. . . . From the porch, I look back at my dog. The water in the bowl beside her has turned into mud. . . . Inside now, I rushed to the window. And the wind is shrieking into the house—the curtains thrashing at the furniture like giant lost birds, flapping against the walls, and my two brothers and two sisters are running about the beat-up house closing the windows, removing the sticks we propped them open with. I hear my father banging on the frames with a hammer, patching the broken panes with cardboard.
Inside, the house was suddenly serene, safe from the wind; but staring out the window in cold terror, I see boxes and weeds crashing against the walls outside, almost tumbling over my sick dog. I long for something miraculous to draw across the sky to stop the wind. . . . I squeezed against the pane as close as I could get to Winnie: If I keep looking at her, she cant possibly die! A tumbleweed rolled over her.
I ran out. I stood over Winnie, shielding my eyes from the slashing wind, knelt over her to see if her stomach was still moving, breathing. And her eyes open looking at me. I listen to her heart (as I used to listen to my mother’s heart when she was sick so often and I would think she had died, leaving me Alone—because my father for me then existed only as someone who was around somehow; taking furious shape later, fiercely).
Winnie is dead.
It seemed the windstorm lasted for days, weeks. But it must have been over, as usual, the next day, when Im standing next to my mother in the kitchen. (Strangely, I loved to sit and look at her as she fixed the food–or did the laundry: She washed our clothes outside in an aluminum tub, and I would watch her hanging up the clean sheets flapping in the wind. Later I would empty the water for her, and I stared intrigued as it made unpredictable patterns on the dirt. . . .) I said: “If Winnie dies—” (She had of course already died, but I didn’t want to say it; her body was still outside, and I kept going to see if miraculously she is breathing again.) “—if she dies, I won’t be sad because she’ll go to Heaven and I’ll see her there.” My mother said: “Dogs don’t go to Heaven, they haven’t got souls.” She didn’t say that brutally. There is nothing brutal about my mother: only a crushing tenderness, as powerful as the hatred I would discover later in my father. “What will happen to Winnie, then?” I asked. “She—s dead, thats all,” my mother answers, “the body just disappears, becomes dirt.”
I stand by the window, thinking: It isn’t fair. . . .
Then my brother, the younger of the two—I am the youngest in the family—had to bury Winnie.
I was very religious then. I went to Mass regularly, to Confession. I prayed nightly. And I prayed now for my dead dog: God would make an exception. He would let her into Heaven.
I stand watching my brother dig that hole in the backyard. He put the dead dog in and covered it I made a cross and brought flowers. Knelt Made the sign of the cross: “Let her into Heaven. . . .”
In the days that followed—I don’t know exactly how much later—we could smell the body rotting. . . . The day was a ferocious Texas summer day with the threat of rain: thunder—but no rain. The sky lit up through the cracked clouds, and lightning snapped at the world like a whip. My older brother said we hadn’t buried Winnie deep enough.
So he dug up the body, and I stand by him as he shovels the dirt in our backyard (littered with papers and bottles covering the weeds which occasionally we pulled, trying several times to grow grass—but it never grew). Finally the body appeared. I turned away quickly. I had seen the decaying face of death. My mother was right. Soon Winnie will blend into the dirt There was no soul, the body would rot, and there would be Nothing left of Winnie.
That is the incident of my early childhood that I remember most often. And that is why I say it begins in the wind. Because somewhere in that plain of childhood time must have been planted the seeds of the restlessness.
Before the death of Winnie, there are other memories of loss.
We were going to plant flowers in the front yard of the house we lived in before we moved to the house where Winnie died. I was digging a ledge along the sidewalk, and my mother was at the store getting the seeds. A man came and asked for my father, but my father isn’t home. “You’re going to have to move very soon,” he tells me. I had heard the house was being sold, and we couldn’t buy it, but it hadn’t meant much to me. I continue shoveling the dirt. After my mother came and spoke to the man, she told me to stop making the holes. Almost snatching the seeds from her—and understanding now—I began burying them frantically as if that way we will have to stay to see them grow.
And so we moved. We moved from that clean house with the white walls and into the house where Winnie will die.
I stand looking at the house in child panic. It was the other half of a duplex, the wooden porch decayed, almost on the verge of toppling down; it slanted like a slide. A dried-up vine, dead from lack of water, still clung to the base of the porch like a skeleton, and the bricks were disintegrating in places into thin streaks of orangy powder. The sun was brazenly bright; it elongates each splinter on the wood, each broken twig on the skeleton vine. . . . I rushed inside. Huge brown cockroaches scurried into the crevices. One fell from the wall, spreading its wings–almost two inches wide—as if to lunge at me—and it splashes like a miniature plane on the floor—splut! The paper was peeling off the walls over at least four more layers, all different gray colors. (We would put up the sixth, or begin to–and then stop, leaving the house even more patched as that layer peeled too: an unfinished jigsaw puzzle which would fascinate me at night: its ragged patterns making angry faces, angry animal shapes—but I could quickly alter them into less angry figures by ripping off the jagged edges. . . .) Where the ceiling had leaked, there are spidery brown outlines.
I flick the cockroaches off the walls, stamping angrily on them.
The house smells of Rot I went to the bathroom. The tub was full of dirty water, and it had stagnated. It was brown, bubbly. In wild dreadful panic, I thrust my hand into the rancid water, found the stopper, pulled it out holding my breath, and looked at my arm, which is covered with the filthy brown crud.
Winters in El Paso for me later would never again seem as bitter cold as they were then. Then I thought of El Paso as the coldest place in the world. We had an old iron stove with a round belly which heated up the whole house; and when we opened the small door to feed it more coal or wood, the glowing pieces inside created a miniature of Hell: the cinders crushed against the edges, smoking. . . . The metal flues that carried the smoke from the stove to the chimney collapsed occasionally and filled the house with soot. This happened especially during the windy days, and the wind would whoosh grime specked down the chimney. At night my mother piled coats on us to keep us warm.
Later, I would be sent out to ask one of our neighbors for a dime—”until my father comes home from work.” Being the youngest and most soulful looking in the family, then, I was the one who went. . . .
Around that time my father plunged into my life with a vengeance.
To expiate some guilt now for what I’ll tell you about him later, I’ll say that that strange, moody, angry man—my father—had once experienced a flashy grandeur in music. At the age of eight he had played a piano concert before the President of Mexico. Years later, still a young man, he directed a symphony orchestra. Unaccountably, since I never really knew that man, he sank quickly lower and lower, and when I came along, when he was almost 50 years old, he found himself Trapped in the memories of that grandeur and in the reality of a series of jobs teaching music to sadly untalented children; selling pianos, sheet music–and soon even that bastard relationship to the world of music he loved was gone, and he became a caretaker for public parks. Then he worked in a hospital cleaning out trash. (I remember him, already a defeated old man, getting up before dawn to face the unmusical reality of soiled bloody dressings.) He would cling to stacks and stacks of symphonic music which he had played, orchestrated—still working on them at night, drumming his fingers on the table feverishly: stacks of music now piled in the narrow hallway in that house, completely unwanted by anyone but himself, gathering dust which annoyed us, so that we wanted to put them outside in the leaky aluminum garage: but he clung to those precious dust-piling manuscripts—and to newspaper clippings of his once-glory—clung to them like a dream, now a nightmare. . . . And somehow I became the reluctant inheritor of his hatred for the world that had coldly knocked him down without even glancing back.
Once, yes, there had been a warmth toward that strange red-faced man—and there were still the sudden flashes of tenderness which I will tell you about later: that man who alternately claimed French, English, Scottish descent–depending on his imaginative moods–that strange man who had traveled from Mexico to California spreading his seed–that turbulent man, married and divorced, who then married my Mother, a beautiful Mexican woman who loves me fiercely and never once understood about the terror between me and my father.
Even now in my mother’s living room there is a glass case which has been with us as long as I can remember. It is full of glass objects: figurines of angels, Virgins of Guadalupe, dolls; tissue-thin imitation flowers, swans; and a small glass, reverently covered with a rotting piece of silk, tied tightly with a faded pink ribbon, containing some mysterious memento of one of my father’s dead children. . . . When I think of that glass case, I think of my Mother . . . a ghost image that will haunt me—Always.
When I was about eight years old, my father taught me this:
He would say to me: “Give me a thousand,” and I knew this meant I should hop on his lap and then he would fondle me—intimately—and he’d give me a penny, sometimes a nickel. At times when his friends—old gray men—came to our house, they would ask for “a thousand.” And I would jump on their laps too. And I would get nickel after nickel, going around the table.
And later, a gift from my father would become a token of a truce from the soon-to-blaze hatred between us.
I loathed Christmas.
Each year, my father put up a Nacimiento—an elaborate Christmas scene, with houses, the wisemen on their way to the manger, angels on angel hair clouds. (On Christmas Eve, after my mother said a rosary while we knelt before the Nacimiento, we placed the Christ child in the crib.) Weeks before Christmas my father began constructing it, and each day, when I came home from school, he would have me stand by him while he worked building the boxlike structure, the miniature houses, the artificial lake; hanging the angels from the elaborate simulated sky, replete with moon, clouds, stars. Sometimes hours passed before he would ask me to help him, but I had to remain there, not talking. Sometimes my mother would have to stand there too, sometimes my younger sister. When anything went wrong—if anything fell—he was in a rage, hurling hammers, cursing.
My father’s violence erupted unpredictably over anything. In an instant he overturns the table—food and plates thrust to the floor. He would smash bottles, menacing us with the sharp fanged edges. He had an old sword which he kept hidden threateningly about the house.
And even so there were those moments of tenderness—even more brutal because they didn’t last: times in which, when he got paid, he would fill the house with presents—flowers for my mother (incongruous in that patched-up house, until they withered and blended with the drabness), toys for us. Even during the poorest Christmas we went through when we were kids—and after the fearful times of putting up the Nacimiento—he would make sure we all had presents—not clothes, which we needed but didn’t want, but toys, which we wanted but didn’t need. And Sundays he would take us to Juarez to dinner, leaving an exorbitant tip for the suddenly attentive waiter. . . . But in the ocean of his hatred, those times of kindness were mere islands. He burned with an anger at life, which had chewed him up callously: an anger which blazed more fiercely as he sank further beneath the surface of his once almost-realized dream of musical glory.
One of the last touches on the Nacimiento was two pieces of craggy wood, which looked very heavy, like rocks (very much like the piece of petrified wood which my father kept on his desk, to warn us that once it had been the hand of a child who had struck his father, and God had turned the child’s hand into stone). The pieces of rocklike wood were located on either side of the manger, like hills. On top of one, my father placed a small statue of a red-tailed, horned Devil, drinking out of a bottle.
Around that time I had a dream which still recurs (and later, in New Orleans, I will experience it awake). We would get colds often in that drafty house, and fever, and during such times I dreamt this: Those pieces of rocklike wood on the sides of the manger are descending on me, to crush me. When I brace for the smashing terrible impact, they become soft, and instead of crushing me they envelop me like melted wax. Sometimes I will dream they’re draped with something like cheesecloth, a tenebrous, thin tissue touching my face like spiderwebs, gluing itself to me although I struggle to tear it away. . . .
When my brothers and sisters all got married and left home—to Escape, I would think—I remained, and my father’s anger was aimed even more savagely at me.
He sat playing solitaire for hours. He calls me over, begins to talk in a very low, deceptively friendly tone. When my mother and I fell asleep, he told me, he would set fire to the house and we would burn inside while he looked on. Then he would change that story: Instead of setting fire to the house, he will kill my mother in bed, and in the morning, when I go wake her, she’ll be dead, and I’ll be left alone with him.
Some nights I would change beds with my mother after he went to sleep—they didn’t sleep in the same room—and I surrounded the bed with sticks, chairs. The slightest noise, and I would reach for a stick to beat him away. In the early morning, before he woke, my mother would change beds with me again.
Once—without him, because he was working on his music–we were going to take a trip to Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico: my mother, my sister and her husband my older brother and his wife, and I. My mother prepared food that night
In the morning, before dawn, I woke my mother and went to my sister’s house to wake her. When I returned, I saw my mother in our backyard (under the paradoxically serene star-splashed sky). “Don’t go in!” she yells at me. I ran inside, and my father is standing menacingly over the table where the food we were taking is. Swiftly I reached for the food, and he lunges at me with a knife, slicing past me only inches short of my stomach. By then, my sister’s husband was there holding him back. . . .
There was a wine-red ring my father wore. As a tie-pin, before being set into the gold ring-frame, it had belonged to his father, and before that to his father’s father—and it was a ruby, my father told me—a ruby so precious that it was his most treasured possession, which he clung to. As he sat moodily staring at his music one particularly poor day, he called me over. Quickly, he gave me the ring. The red stone in the gold frame glowed for me more brilliantly than anything has ever since. A few days later he took it back.
During one of those rare, rare times when there was a kind of determined truce between us–an unspoken, smoldering hatred–I was crossing the street with him. He was quite old then, and he carried a cane. As we crossed, he stumbled on the cane, fell to the street Without waiting an instant, I run to the opposite side, and I stand hoping for some miraculous avenging car to plunge over him.
But it didn’t come.
I went back to him, helped him up, and we walked the rest of the way in thundering silence.
And then, when I was older, possibly 13 or 14, I was sitting one afternoon on the porch loathing him. My hatred for him by then had become a thing which overwhelmed me, which obsessed me the length of the day. He stood behind me, and he put his hand on me, softly, and said—gently: “You’re my son, and I love you.” But those longed-for words, delayed until the waves of my hatred for him had smothered their meaning, made me pull away from him: “I hate you!—you’re a failure—as a man, as a father!” And later those words would ring painfully in my mind when I remembered him as a slouched old man getting up before dawn to face the hospital trash. . . .
Soon, I stopped going to Mass. I stopped praying. The God that would allow this vast unhappiness was a God I would rebel against The seeds of that rebellion—planted that ugly afternoon when I saw my dog’s body beginning to decay, the soul shut out by Heaven—were beginning to germinate.
When my brother was a kid and I wasn’t even born (but 111 hear the story often), he would stand moodily looking out the window; and when, once, my grandmother asked him, “Little boy, what are you doing by the window staring at so hard?” he answered, “I am occupied with life.” I’m convinced that if my brother hadn’t said that—or if I hadn’t been told about it—I would have said it.
I liked to sit inside the house and look out the hall-window—beyond the cactus garden in the vacant lot next door. I would sit by that window looking at the people that passed. I felt miraculously separated from the world outside: separated by the pane, the screen, through which, nevertheless—uninvolved—I could see that world.
I read many books, I saw many, many movies.
I watched other lives, only through a window.
Sundays during summer especially I would hike outside the city, along the usually waterless strait of sand called the Rio Grande, up the mountain of Cristo Rey, dominated at the top by the coarse, weed-surrounded statue of a primitive-faced Christ. I would lie on the dirt of that mountain staring at the breathtaking Texas sky.
I was usually alone. I had only one friend: a wild-eyed girl who sometimes would climb the mountain with me. We were both 17, and I felt in her the same wordless unhappiness I felt within myself. We would walk and climb for hours without speaking. For a brief time I liked her intensely—without ever telling her. Yet I was beginning to feel, too, a remoteness toward people—more and more a craving for attention which I could not reciprocate: one-sided, as if the need in me was so hungry that it couldn’t share or give back in kind. Perhaps sensing this—one afternoon in a boarded-up cabin at the base of the mountain—she maneuvered, successfully, to make me. But the discovery of sex with her, releasing as it had been merely turned me strangely further within myself.
Mutually, we withdrew from each other.
And it was somewhere about that time that the narcissistic pattern of my life began.
From my father’s inexplicable hatred of me and my mother’s blind carnivorous love, I fled to the Mirror. I would stand before it, thinking: I have only Me! . . . I became obsessed with age. At 17, I dreaded growing old. Old age is something that must never happen to me. The image of myself in the mirror must never fade into someone I can’t look at.
And even after a series of after-school jobs, my feeling of isolation from others only increased.
Then the army came, and for months I hadn’t spoken to my father. (We would sit at the table eating silently, ignoring each other.) And when I left, that terrible morning, I kissed my mother. And briefly I looked at my father. His eyes were watering. Mutely he held out the ruby-ring which once, long ago, he had given me and then taken back. And I took it wordlessly. And in that instant I wanted to hold him—because he was crying, because he did feel something for me, because, I was sure, he was overwhelmed at that moment by the Loss I felt too. I wanted to hold him then as I had wanted to so many, many times as a child, and if I could have spoken, I know I would have said at last: “I love you.” But that sense of loss choked me–and I walked out without speaking to him. . . . Only a few weeks later, in Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky, I received a telegram that he was very sick.
And I came back to El Paso.
I felt certain that this time it would be different.
I reached our house, in the government projects we had moved into from that house with the winged cockroaches, and I got in with the key I had kept. There is no one home. I called my brother. My father was dead.
I hang up the telephone and I know that now Forever I will have no father, that he had been unfound, that as long as he had been alive there was a chance, and that we would be, Always now, strangers, and that is when I knew what Death really is—not in the physical discovery of the Nothingness which the death of my dog Winnie had brought me (in the decayed body which would turn into dirt, rejected by Heaven) but in the knowledge that my Father was gone, for me—that there was no way to reach him now—that his Death would exist only for me, who am living.
And throughout the days that followed–and will follow forever—I will discover him in my memories, and hopelessly—through the infinite miles that separate life from death—try to understand his torture: in searching out the shape of my own.
The army passed like something unreal, and I returned to my Mother and her hungry love. And left her, standing that morning by the kitchen door crying, as she always would be in my mind, and I was on my way now to Chicago, briefly—from where I would go to freedom: New York!—embarking on that journey through night cities and night lives–looking for I don’t know what—perhaps some substitute for salvation.
1. The narrator wants us to believe he is separate from the world of hustlers and johns he inhabits. Is he? Why is this distancing so important to him?
2. Does the fact that narrator is a hustler make his attitude toward sex and love radically different from that of most gay men? Of most people in general?
3. Why does the narrator feel like a failure for not stealing his john’s wallet?
4. Reread Rechy’s classification on page 179 of the various types of gay bars. How recognizable are these places today? Have any of them become extinct?
5. Why does Lance O’Hara celebrate when his ex-sugar daddy (whom he has kicked out of his own house) has a heart attack (p. 195)? Is Lance deserving of our scorn or our pity?
6. Does Lance really believe that life is meant to be a series of love affairs (p. 210)? Is it possible that such a life might bring fulfillment or happiness?
7. What does the narrator blame his father for?
8. How does Rechy characterize the various cities in which the novel takes place (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans)? Are they very distinct from one another? What do you make of the title?
9. Discuss the following statement: “It’s possible to hate the filthy world and still love it with an abstract pitying love” (p. 280).
10. What do you think is meant by “the ice age of the heart” (p. 341)?
11. Many of the characters in this book have secrets. What role do secrets and mystery play in the lives of Lance, Neil (the masochist), Sylvia (the bar owner), and the narrator? What do all their secrets have in common?
12. Why is the narrator so afraid to show emotion? Why does he reject so many friendships? Is Jeremy’s assessment of him accurate?
13. Why doesn’t the narrator go with Jeremy? Does he make the right choice?
14. Were you satisfied with the ending? Does the narrator achieve some kind of peace? Do you feel all the issues raised by the novel were resolved?
15. How would you describe the mood of this book? Is Rechy’s worldview entirely bleak? Does the novel offer any hope for happiness for an aging gay man?
16. Which characters did you find most moving or resonant? How much of yourself did you see in them?
17. How well do you feel you got to know the narrator? Did you grow to like him?
18. How do you think our approach to this book is different today from the one readers would have had in 1963?
19. How well does this book stand the test of time? What lessons does it have to teach to gay men today?
20. John Rechy has written that City of Night began not as a novel but as a letter. How is a letter different from a novel? Does thinking of the book as a letter affect the way you read it?
21. City of Night has been called not just a seminal gay novel but a classic American novel. Do you agree? What does it have to say about American society as a whole?