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I see a dark stranger

City of Night
John Rechy
Souvenir Press, 400pp, £10

John Rechy signed his first book deal while working as a prostitute in New York and made his first-hand experiences of Sixties America’s gay underground into this 1963 novel. He became, briefly, a bestselling author and cult hero (Jim Morrison adopted the novel’s title as the ambiguous refrain of the Doors’ “LA Woman”), but, until this new edition, the book has been out of print in the UK for decades.

City of Night is a breathless, amphetamine-fuelled dash across America with the nameless narrator, always on the road and on the make, between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans and “home”, El Paso, carried along not by the jazz of the Beat Generation but by the insistent rhythms of early rock’n’roll. Perhaps surprisingly, little of the narrative is expended on the countless sexual encounters. Rechy’s descriptive energy is instead reserved for city life’s twilight world and a colourful parade of characters: the narrator’s first client, the gruff Mr King; the veteran hustler Pete, who sells himself to men for $20 or 75 cents; Neil, a leather-wearing fetishist in San Francisco, who “even had a leather handkerchief”.

Shining most brightly among the troupe of scores, hustlers, queers and queens is the drag-wearing, Shakespeare-misquoting Miss Destiny (the Bard is “a very Great writer who wrote ladies’ roles for drag queens in his time”). Yet, however outrageous, funny or vibrant Rechy’s characters are, we always depart from them on a note of lonely introspection.

City of Night’s reputation has gone hand-in-hand with its author’s. Alfred Chester savaged both in an early review, printed under the title “Fruit salad” in the New York Review of Books, branding the book an improbable fabrication and referring sarcastically to the “adorable photograph” of the author on the dust jacket. Years later, Rechy would lament being remembered as a hustler who had somehow managed to write, rather than as a novelist who had written intimately about the world of the hustler.

Chester was scathing about the book’s final encounter, in which the narrator escapes the crowds at Mardi Gras in New Orleans and has sex and a confessional dialogue with a stranger. If the book does stray into sentimentality here, it is a small price to pay for that apo­calyptic return to the streets of New Orleans: “And the bright sun directly in my eyes erupted violently, the liquor jolted me anew, the pills were like claws ripping mercilessly inside me.” Rechy’s prose pulls past the odd imperfection, and his descriptive energy surpasses any “queer literature” label.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009