Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: City of Night by John Rechy

City of Night
John Rechy

Published by Souvenir Press

Reviewed by Justin Gowers

‘City of Night’, an instant bestseller when it was first published in 1963, has just been brought back into print by the independent publisher Souvenir Press. The landmark first novel about male prostitution by John Rechy has remained continuously in print in America for almost half a century, but the gay Mexican-American author has been largely neglected by British publishers. Over twenty years have passed since ‘City of Night’ was last published in the UK.

New readers to Rechy may already be familiar with ‘City of Night’. Rechy might not have been on publishers’ radar, but ‘City of Night’ has seeped into popular culture. The novel was certainly in the forefront of Jim Morrison’s mind when he came to write the lyrics of L.A. Woman (‘Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light/ Or just another lost angel...City of Night City of Night, City of Night, City of Night, woo, c'mon’).

Musical influences, such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino shaped Rechy’s writing style. This may explain why musicians like Tom Waits have found inspiration in his books. The Velvet Underground (named after a paperback by journalist Michael Leigh that reported on the sexual underground in the USA) and Marc Almond were drawn to ‘City of Night’ because it is a book about the seedier side of life. Shining a light on the previously unseen world of hustlers, drag queens and clients, Rechy was inviting readers to take a walk on the wild side. Soft Cell acknowledged their debt to Rechy when they released ‘Numbers’ whose title was taken from a novel of the same name by Rechy. It’s easy to see the influence Rechy had on the snyth-pop duo in the lyrics ‘Feeling sleazy. In seedy sin city. Sleazy city.’ David Bowie, the godfather of glam, has cited ‘City of Night’ as one of his favourite novels.

Rechy’s influence extends beyond pop music. David Hockney first visited Los Angeles in search of the seedy nightlife in Rechy’s novel. Rechy inspired Andy Warhol and his right-hand-man Gerard Malanga. Malanga asked Rechy to collaborate on a book on Warhol. Unfortunately, Rechy was repelled by Malanga's overweening ego. Leee Black Childers, rock and punk scene photographer and Warhol's assistant at The Factory, has said, ‘It was from the denizens of Times Square, Pershing Square, Piccadilly Circus, and the Tenderloin that I formulated my philosophy as so perfectly outlined by John Rechy in ‘City Of Night’'.

‘City of Night’ paved the way for films like the Oscar-garlanded ‘Midnight Cowboy’ starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, Paul Morrissey’s ‘Flesh’, and Gus Van Sant’s ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. Van Sant has long wanted to make a feature film of ‘City of Night’ and pressed copies of the book into the hands of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix on the set of ‘My Private Idaho’.

When minorities and marginalized voices become co-opted by the mainstream, some of their radicalism is often diluted. Rechy was one of the first novelists to give voice to drag queens. The outlandish and in-yer-face drag queens like Miss Destiny, Chi Chi and Darling Dolly Dane strutting their stuff in ‘City of Night’ belonged to the gay demimonde. Drag queens were the shock troops for the gay community. They kick-started the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Today, drag queens are everywhere. Jason Donovan and Graham Norton have trowled on the slap for the stage musicals ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and ‘La Cage aux Folles’. Miss Destiny, with her dreams of a fabulous wedding, would see the current mainstreaming of drag as progress. As the old Virginia Slims ad said, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’.

Justin Gowers is the administrator of The John Betjeman Young Person's Poetry Competition.



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