Academic journal article Romance Notes

New York City as an Urban Specter in John Rechy's City of Night

Academic journal article Romance Notes

New York City as an Urban Specter in John Rechy's City of Night

Article excerpt

   The world of Times Square was a world    which I was certain I had sought out willingly    --not a world which had summoned me.    And because I believe that, its lure,    for me, was much more powerful.  John Rechy, City of Night (53) 

JOHN Rechy is primarily a Los Angeles novelist, and his Bodies and Souls (1983) is easily one of the best novels ever written about that city. Along with other novels like Numbers (1967), Marilyn's Daughter (1988), and The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez (1991), Rechy has probed eloquently and efficaciously the human geographies of Los Angeles with an intense narrative discourse that few others have matched. (1)

But Rechy's inaugural novel, The City of Night (1963), is strategically situated in New York City in its first long segment (approximately one fifth of the novel) after the introit involving the narrator's El Paso roots. One can speculate on the reasons for this: Rechy's own personal circumstances (after all, aren't all first novels essentially autobiographical?); the way in which parts of the novel were written for independent publication and many of the most important literary reviews are located in New York, making it reasonable to set a narrative in that city; and the way in which New York--well, really, Manhattan--in the sixties, while not free of homophobia and systematic police persecution, was the epicenter of the gay movement. This is true to the extent that, after World War II, also certainly long before but perhaps with less intensity, New York was where one ended up to reinvent oneself, no matter what the reasons were. The much vaunted, and much lamented, anonymity of the city, its seemingly infinite universes of human experience (including infinite and alluring sub-universes), the many ways in which it was the creative capital of the country, and the many but always legitimate economic opportunities were features that drew the restless in and enfolded them in its constantly mutating dynamic. To be sure, later for Rechy, City of Night and his subsequent fiction, Los Angeles will, as it had for other writers, also take on this role. But the dynamic is different, with the sun-drenched pollution alternating with a contaminated Eden to generate a sense of degradation and despair quite different from whatever the ugliest sides of New York represent.

Certainly, however, the most important aspect of the presence of New York (that is, throughout here, really Manhattan) in Rechy's novel turns on the way in which New York City had, by the sixties, become both an emergently visible gay mecca and a gay dystopia. What I mean by this is that, first of all, New York had always had its extensive history of gay life (I am using the term "gay" here to designate the social subjects of all ranges of the concept of the queer), which had intensified with World War II and the function of New York as a transfer point on the East Coast of so many young Americans being transported to Europe, which prompted the development of sociocultural venues that one might assume such a concentration of wandering individuals would require, such as, quite simply, bars and dives. Secondly, I am referring to the way in which, with the rootlessness provoked by the war, the enormous changes in American society after the war (which included the beginning of a demand for minority rights of all stripes), and postwar prosperity, there was a confluence of factors that allowed New York to play a role as the first U.S. city with a vibrant gay life (see Chauncey; Kaiser for major accounts of New York gay life). While other U.S. cities quickly followed in assuming the role of "gay U.S. capitals," New York was always the prima inter pares in this regard (White inventories U.S. gay capitals and their distinctive features). Concomitantly, we are speaking here of the sheer numbers of individuals involved, coupled with growing demands for rights and recognition, and abetted by important New York intellectual circles (but not all of them: the infamous review of City of Night in The New York Review of Books, one of the city's newest literary trusts, demonstrated this [Chester; see Rechy's "Complaint" thirty years after Chester's review]). …

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