City of Night by John Rechy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A fantastic book that I read slowly as I wanted to sip it like fine wine.
This book keeps showing up on gay people’s top books of the year every year as new people discover it and there’s a reason. I believe this classic will continue to impress for generations to come.
On the surface a book about a hustler turning tricks, the story to me helped pave the way for Stonewall with some of the first and best vivid pictures of gay life from the early 1960’s presenting drag queens and Johns with a sense of humanity rarely seen. Another thing I loved it the author successfully creates a new language with youngman and sexmoney and a lack of punctuation making the book a style all his own.
One thing less good is the retail kindle edition I purchased from Amazon was not proofread and contained over 250 errors from the conversion from paper. This is really unacceptable and the book deserves better.
The story starts off with the hustling and returns back there often as a base, with many insights as applicable now as they were 50 years ago when the book was published, as in this account of a hustler describing his John and the image being sold:
“If he asks too many questions, he exposes himself to the possibility that he will get an entirely different answer from the one he wants to hear and it will shatter his sexdream.”
I loved Miss Destiny:
“Now Miss Destiny is a youngman possibly 20 but quite as possibly 18 and very probably 25”
And with the despair and suicide in pre-Stonewall literature, to be able to read the following was fabulous, even if the character’s story didn’t end all that well:
“But one day, in the most lavish drag youve evuh seen—heels! and gown! and beads! and spangled earrings!—Im going to storm heaven and protest! Here I am!!!!! I’ll yell—and I’ll shake my beads at Him.... And God will cringe!”
A lot of this book was me being surprised I related so well to tales of the gay scene 50 years ago. Tale as old as time, I suppose:
“And then I started driving to the beaches, I guess to make sure there was a whole world ready to welcome me when I finally decided to join it—if I ever decided to. I always came there with the intention of meeting someone. But then I would see a screaming fairy—and suddenly I’d be ashamed. It’s very strange—but I couldnt bear to look into his eyes, afraid, I guess, that he’d look back at me with recognition. And I didnt want a fairy, I knew that I didnt even want them to look at me in that strange, piercing way. So I would drive away—but then I’d come back....”
It was also great seeing some of the dated references and again appreciating the freedom I was able to have. Tales of the vice squad forcing men to cut their hair or:
“In a small clearing surrounded by the tables and benches, a line of six young males danced the Madison: without touching—making it legal.”
And Chi-Chi’s last stand for dignity, similar to Miss Destiny’s in the first half was quite moving.
The early and late parts of the book talk more of the author’s life. The author describes the collision of two worlds when with a John:
““Who gave you that ring?” he asked abruptly. I hesitated to answer. Finally I said: “My father—a long time ago.” Even to mention my father—to recall the memories of that ring—in the presence of this man suddenly seemed blasphemous.”
In this life a lot of what you’re selling is image and the last chapters examine who is selling to whom. The book gets a little bogged down in the last lap, which was disappointing, with the author going on a long head-trip and only occasionally do moments of clarity and understanding of purpose hit the reader.
I got the impression here at the end he was struggling with his purpose and looking toward the future, which I understand and that’s what you do in your twenties. But it’s not until you’re in your thirties, an age the author hadn’t yet attained when the book was published, that you get the answer. So I felt the author was at the last struggling toward a point that he hadn’t yet reached. The realisation that everything will be okay, the point of self-acceptance.
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