“[Rechy’s] tone rings absolutely true, is absolutely his own. . . . He 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
When John Rechy’s explosive first novel appeared in 1963, it marked a radical departure in fiction, 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 bestseller, 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 he moves from El Paso to Times Square, from Pershing Square to the French Quarter. Now including never-seen original marked galley pages and an interview with the author, Rechy’s portrait of the edges of America has lost none of its power to move and exhilarate.
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About the Author
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CITY OF NIGHT
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 darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.
Remember Pershing Square and the apathetic palmtrees. Central Park and the frantic shadows. Movie theaters in the angry morning-hours. And wounded Chicago streets. ... Horrormovie 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 doesnt 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 couldnt see — just lay down, and didnt 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 youre locked down here so Lonesome suddenly youre 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 didnt 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 wont be sad because she'll go to Heaven and I'll see her there." My mother said: "Dogs dont go to Heaven, they havent got souls." She didnt 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. "Shes 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 dont know exactly how much later — we could smell the body rotting. ... The day was a ferocious Texas summerday 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 hadnt 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 isnt home. "Youre going to have to move very soon," he tells me. I had heard the house was being sold, and we couldnt buy it, but it hadnt 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 graycolors. (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 angryfaces, angry animalshapes — 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 grimespecked 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 youngman, 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 glasscase which has been with us as long as I can remember. It is full of glass objects: figurines of angels, Virgins of Guadalupe, dolls; tissuethin imitation flowers, swans; and a small glass, reverently covered with a rotting piece of silk, tied tightly with a fadedpink ribbon, containing some mysterious memento of one of my father's dead children. ... When I think of that glasscase, 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 angelhair clouds. (On Christmas Eve, after my mother said a rosary while we knelt before the Nacimiento, we placed the Christchild 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 sharpfanged 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 didnt 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 didnt want, but toys, which we wanted but didnt 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "City of Night"
Copyright © 1963 John Rechy.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Letter to Grove Press from James Baldwin, 1963,
Introduction to the 1984 edition of City of Night,
City of Night,
Afterword to the 50th anniversary edition of,
City of Night,
Portfolio of annotated galley pages from the original 1963 edition of City of Night,
"John Rechy": VICE magazine interview by Steve Lafreniere,