Thursday, June 2, 2011

Storm Heaven and Protest

About six weeks ago, a new reader of this blog wrote to me and asked if I had ever written a post about John Rechy. I replied that I had not, mainly because I had never read any of this work.  If I am going to write about an author, I want to be familiar with his work. So I looked up some of Rechy’s essays, found them interesting and then ordered his most acclaimed book, City of Night.  The book came, but I was in the midst of wrapping the year up at the high school where I teach and with final projects and finals with my college class that I teach at night.  To say that I was busy would have been an understatement.  I had spent the five months since Christmas reading Steve Berry’s The Emperor’s Tomb. I’m a slow reader, but generally not that slow.  I enjoyed the book, but I would get home from work, finish some of the work I had at home to do: cook, clean, grade papers, watch a little TV, etc.  By the time I lay down to go to sleep, when I generally do some reading before bed, I was too damn tired to pick up a book, so The Emperor’s Tomb largely sat unread until school was over, then it didn’t take much to finish it.

Finally, I could delve into John Rechy’s City of Night.  I sat down with it and began to read, but at first I found it terribly difficult.  Maybe it's the way he writes "didnt" for "didn't," "hes" for "he's,""youll" for "you'll." Things like that drive me crazy as a teacher. At first I thought it was a typographical error, but then I realized that many errors wasn’t possible for a publisher, especially with words capitalized here and there seemingly without rhyme or reason.  Then I realized that this was Rechy’s style.  He used this type of grammar to emphasize various points and follow the cadence of the speaker.  I thought it would drive me crazy, and I almost put the book down to read later (which would probably mean never).  Luckily, I continued to read. 
“The City is of Night: perchance of Death, But certainly of Night…”
cityofnight_240City of Night is a novel about loneliness, about love and the ceaseless, furtive search for love. Set in the seamy, neon-lighted world of honky-tonk USA—Times Square in New York, Pershing Square in Los Angeles, Hollywood Boulevard, Chicago, and the French Quarter of New Orleans--and dealing with a little-known world of hidden sex and the hustlers, drag queens, and butch homosexuals who inhabited these worlds.  One of the main reasons I originally continued reading the book was to get to the section about New Orleans, a city which I love dearly.  I couldn’t bring myself to just skip to that part of the book, so I ventured on.

This book is a journey by a nameless narrator, through this clandestine world of furtive love. roberts3His journey takes him through the major cities of the United States, and through the lives of an extraordinary collection of characters who dwell either in this world or on its fringes: Pete, the "youngman"—or male hustler--at 42nd Street, who like the other youngmen goes with men for money but with women to prove his masculinity intact; the bedridden Professor, author of many books, for whom the only book that matters is the scrapbook of the Angels he has collected through the years in many countries; Miss Destiny, the queen of them all, with his-her endless succession of faithless husbands; Sergeant Morgan, the terror of Pershing Square, the cop who cracks down hard on the gay scene but has tried more than once to make it with those he arrests; "Mom" the New Yorker whose fetish is cooking for the male hustlers he takes home and undresses; Skipper, A Very Beautiful Boy, once beloved of one of Hollywood's top directors, who now carries his yellowed pictures and clippings in an often-renewed envelope; Lance O'Hara, not long ago the most sought-after star in the Hollywood heaven, now openly pursuing a youngman a decade or two his junior, and groveling to get him; Neil and his world of masquerade.

The most fascinating and interesting characters throughout the book were not the ones mentioned above but the characters of Chuck the Cowboy and Jeremy, though Sylvia is also a beautiful and tragic character worthy of a note.  To be honest, I found most of the other character to be sad and/or creepy—for lack of a better word.  tumblr_llec7cLA1M1qh7mnvo1_1280Chuck’s lackadaisical attitude about life was just so carefree, listless, lacking enthusiasm and determination and carelessly lazy.  He is described as:
…sitting there complacently in the lazy afternoons, in the same spot, shoulders hunched, hands holding on the railing, balancing himself—long, lanky legs locked loosely under the bar by booted toes as if on a fence, on a ranch, sandy hair jutting out from a widehat over long sideburns—as he looks at the passing scene of Pershing Square with what I would usually think was amusement—but wonder, occasionally, Is it more like bewilderment?…
Chuck is one of those characters that is also lonely, like all of the characters in the book, but he has perfected the none caring attitude of the hustler and his masculine veneer.  The story he tells of when he left home and the night out with his mother is one of the most enjoyable sections of the book.  Probably, because I have known women like his mother.  The mother who took on the role of mother and father in the family.

The New Orleans depicted in the last chapter of City of Night is not the Tennessee Williams version of New Orleans.  In some ways it does have the seediness of A Streetcar Named Desire, but none of the false gentility of Blanche.  It is purely a “city of the night” taking place in a Mardi Gras celebration of the past. Sylvia is one of the earliest New Orleans characters that we meet in this section of the book, and though she is a favorite character of mine, I will not say much about her.  Her story needs to be read in its entirety, not summarized by me, and I hope that after reading this post, you will go out and read City of Night.  The other New Orleans character is Jeremy, who appears at the end of the book and in a way opens up the book for better understanding.  Once you have read the section on Jeremy, the book is a much more worthwhile read, but it still leaves you with a certain sadness.
Into the Night with John Rechy
John Rechy stated that "City of Night began as a letter to a friend of mine after I had been to New Orleans. city-of-night-rechy-johnI wrote City of Night because they were my experiences hustling, and it began as a letter. I didn't think of it as a book."  I did not read the introduction before reading the book, which is not normal for me. I usually delve into the introduction first, but in this case, and for what ever reason, I did not read the introduction first.  I read the introduction after completing the book, and it made all the difference.  I would suggest that for anyone.  Read the book, then read the introduction.  It made for a much more fascinating read this way.  In his novels about hustling, preeminently City of Night and Numbers, John Rechy moves from the world of homosexual behavior into the world of gay identity. Rechy was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1934. His parents, Mexican aristocrats, fled to avoid persecution during the purges of Pancho Villa. Rechy studied journalism at Texas Western College and the New School for Social Research in New York before serving in Germany in the U.S. Army.

Afterward, Rechy relocated to New York and began a period of hustling and drifting that inspired much of his early writing. Rechy's first novel, City of Night (1963), began as a letter to a friend about his experiences at Mardi Gras and was then reworked into a short story for Evergreen Review.
obscene_03Rechy's reputation as a gay writer rests primarily on City of Night, which documents the wanderings of a nameless male hustler from El Paso, to New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. This narrative is punctuated by recollections of the narrator's childhood in El Paso.  Originally, Rechy had chosen the title “Storm Heaven and Protest” (hence the title of this post) for his first novel, but his editor wisely suggested that the book take its name from the title of the intermittent chapters throughout the book that links the various characters together.

When John Rechy published his first novel, City of Night, he was still earning his living as a prostitute on the streets of Los Angeles. It made sense: he didn't expect a book that dealt with underground gay life in America to make him much money, and it's a foolish writer who gives up the day job (or in Rechy's case, the night job) with the first flush of publication.

To Rechy's astonishment, and despite the best efforts of homophobic critics, the book was a smash and money started rolling in. But Rechy still couldn't leave the streets. "It caught me out completely," says Rechy, now 77, and still living in Los Angeles. "I was bewildered. I did nothing at all to promote the book, even to the extent of denying that I wrote it. I felt that if I left the streets as soon as I had some success, I'd be betraying the world that I wrote about. And the truth is that I couldn't give it up. I'd been hustling for so long that it was a habit."

"It got ridiculous," says Rechy. "People hit on me all the time, far more than I say in the book. Looking back, I can see it was my own fault – I projected a very sexual image, Numbers Rechyand I shouldn't have been surprised when people responded." Ridiculous it may have been, but the masquerade continued well into Rechy's thirties. "In the 1970s, when I was teaching at UCLA, I'd finish my evening classes, then change my clothes somewhat and go down to hustle on Santa Monica Boulevard. One night, a student saw me down there and said 'Good evening, Professor Rechy. Are you out for an evening stroll?'." I'm sure he was thinking what I think some of the time: "I can't do anything or go anywhere without running into my students." Only in the 1970s could a man be both a hustler and a professor. Really, can you imagine if a professor was a hustler in this age of internet technology?  I can just imagine what his ratings on RateMyProfessor.com would be like: "Professor Rechy is a great professor, very interesting.  And if you want to see him out of the classroom, just go to Pershing Square or Santa Monica Boulevard where for $20 you can having him for an evening." Of course, he would also have plenty of chili peppers, and I am sure that the ratings would be high.  I've gotten a little off subject.

Rechy kept writing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, detailing the ups and (mostly) downs of his compulsive sex life in Numbers, Rushes and the non-fiction polemic The Sexual Outlaw. But it was City of Night that made his name, and on which his reputation rests. It's an American classic, with its loner hero, its juke joints and neon signs, its restless shifting from city to city, bed to bed; a hybrid of On the Road and Catcher in the Rye.

RechyGala(2)10.03He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Duke, UCLA, USC, Occidental College, University of Northern Illinois, among other academic institutions. He was the keynote speaker at the 1999 Writers' Conference at UCLA and at the 1990 Out/Write National Writers Conference at San Francisco. He has been a key participant at numerous other literary conferences, including the 1999 Los Angeles Times Book Festival, the Guadalajara International Book Fair, Miami Book Fair, and New Orleans Literary Festival.

He has written essays for The Nation, Los Angeles Times Books, Washington Post Book World, The Saturday Review, New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, London Magazine, Evergreen Review, New York Magazine, The Advocate, Mother Jones, Premiere, and many other national publications.

Of Mexican-Scottish descent, he makes his home in Los Angeles, California, where he teaches literature and film courses, for writers, in the graduate division of the University of Southern California.
Important? Inspirational? YES! NO! MAYBE!...
City of Night is the first book of its kind.  The homosexual subculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s was a dangerous time.  415290930_e28e194424Homosexuality and homosexual sex were illegal in the United States and the life of a hustler was certainly not picnic in the park.  While doing some research on John Rechy and City of Night, I came across a review written by Antonio W. Wilson of the book of Outlaw: The Lives And Careers Of John Rechy by Charles Casillo form the literary journal RALPH.  Wilson was not a big fan of John Rechy and had never been able to get through City of Night for much the same reason as I almost put the book down myself, but as he states at the end of the review: “But there is another side to the John Rechy story. I showed this review to a friend of mine who had read him many years ago. This is what he had to say about that time of his life”:

John Rechy was very important to me back when I was coming out, at age 40. He opened up a world of possibilities --- anonymous sex, T-rooms, hustlers, dirty book-store sex, cruising, rough trade and other goodies. I am proud to say that I went out and lived for a while on Rechy's wild side.
    Night people are different from day ones. They break all the rules. They do endless self destructive things. To the world we were brought up in they are scum, losers, dangerous. They make up a kind of fraternity of night men like themselves --- druggies, drug dealers, hustlers, bartenders, cops and robbers. Sexy boys from West Virginia who will soon be dead (and this was before AIDS) dead of something --- OD, knife fight, car crash. Once you are accepted in the fraternity it is a very, very seductive life. Harsh; no social pretense.
Bibliography:
  1. "A Substantial Artist" and “City of Night” from JohnRechy.com.
  2. Bredbeck, Gregory W. “Rechy, John” Ed. Claude J. Summers. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2002 www.glbtq.com/literature/rechy_j.html.
  3. “John Rechy” Wikipedia.
  4. Savage, Jon. “John Rechy’s City Of Night and Stonewall @ 40”
  5. Smith, Rupert.  “Midnight cowboy: John Rechy recalls 40 yeas of hustle” Independent.co.uk. 27 April 2008.
  6. Wilson, Antonio W. Review of Outlaw: The Lives And Careers Of John Rechy by Charles Casillo. R A L P H: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities, Volume XXXIV, Number 4: Mid-Spring 2003. (http://www.ralphmag.org/BY/john-rechy.html).


Thanks Andrew, for suggesting this book to me.

2 comments:

Writer said...

Here at my library we have a couple of books on Rechy but nothing by him (this being Kentucky that isn't all that odd), so I've always been interested. Even moreso now. Thank you.

JoeBlow said...

Writer, City of Night is well worth reading. His other books have come highly recommended as well. Living further south than you, I live where even the big bookstores have a terrible selection of gay books, so I order most of mine through Amazon, which is where I got City of Night. I do like to browse bookstores though and see what jumps out at me, sadly you lose that experience with internet bookstores.