In the early 1970’s I picked up a copy of the book City of Night by John Rechy.
The other day, in a funk, I came across the book again in my library. I wanted something different than Russian verbs of motion to read.
I immediately went to a favorite chapter, The professor: the flight of the angels.
This chapter details the author’s encounter with an aging, eccentric, lonely gay man who paid street boys to come and listen to him talk. At the time, the author was a hustler. He sold his body to whomever would pay him. Time Square in the heart of New York City, was his preferred spot for such assignations. This man wanted his attention. And he was very willing to pay for it and something more.
At some point while reading I became diverted and put the book down. When I returned I flipped around in the book and noticed an introduction by John Rechy which I had never read.
In these nine pages written in 1984 in Los Angeles ( for a later printing, I imagine) Mr. Rechy describes how the book came about and how he came to be a writer.
As I read the introduction I realized that I had struck gold. I love first hand accounts by writers on their personal journeys in putting words together.
El Paso, Texas is where it all began. Rechy, the son of a Scottish father and Mexican mother, wrote to escape his less than glamorous life. A local newspaper gave him work as a copyboy and also a scholarship to go to school. He was a voracious reader and over the years educated himself by reading and studying the work of many writers. He writes that after class he would go up into the mountains near El Paso and sit and read until it got dark. Later he went into the army and afterwards he came to NYC to enter Columbia University.
Instead, he ended up on the streets as a male whore. He writes that he found this infinitely more interesting and useful as a writer than being a student at Columbia University.
He would hustle, get a straight job, hustle, get a new job and leave, over and over again. At some point he enrolled in the New School for Social Research, located in New York’s Greenwich Village area. I recall the original building which used to be located on the corner of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was a shrine for New York intelligentsia for over 90 years. It was recently torn down. A gaping hole in the ground is all that remains at this time.
At the time, Evergreen Review was a famous avant-garde literary quarterly review which in the sixties published many outre and unknown writers. Many of these went on to become famous. On a lark, Rechy sent a story to them, Mardi Gras. They took some time and then published it. Overnight he began to attract attention.
I read Evergreen Review in the sixties and seventies. The other night I found a copy in my library from 1963. It brought back so many memories of my life in New York City where I grew up and, during the sixties, where I spent most of my free time. I knew many of the writers and figures mentioned in its pages. They were very accessible even for a young, unconnected, introverted boy like myself. All you needed to do was to find them and say, Hi.
That was then.
These people are all gone now.
Don Allen, an editor at Grove Press which published Evergreen Review, became Rechy’s connection to the literary world. He loved Rechy’s writing when few others did. Allen flew out to Los Angeles from New York to meet with Rechy who was then hustling there, living by his wits and writing on the side.
Rechy tried to shock Allen by taking him to some notorious haunts in the inner city. Don Allen just told him that he wanted to go elsewhere to talk.
Allen earlier had written Rechy that this story could be the basis of a novel and wondered if this was something he was considering.
John Rechy replied that it was the basis of a novel. But this was not the case at all. He did this, he tells us, because he was afraid that if he didn’t say this, he would be ignored and the story would never get published.
Based on this lie he became a famous writer.
He notes that this first novel was very difficult for him to write. Every chapter went through at least twelve drafts. Some many more than that. The first chapter ended up as the last and the last became the first. He became obsessed with the book. When the proofs arrived from the publisher he rewrote the entire book again. He was determined to communicate exactly what he wanted to and nothing less. Since the publisher would have to go to considerable expense to make all the changes he offered to pay for all of it out of his advances on the book. Barney Rosset, the publisher at Grove Press, had everything changed without charging him a cent. The book took over four years to complete.
City of night became a big hit. It went through many reprints. And it attracted the ire of the conservative literary establishment. This made it even a greater attraction for readers curious to find out what all the fuss was about. It still sells well today almost 50 years later.
The introduction shows how Don Allen constantly encouraged John Rechy to write. At some point, Rechy had become quite well known and admired as a writer. He never forgot Don Allen and offered him and Grove Press first rights to publish what later became known as City of Night, the novel I return to on a regular basis for inspiration and reminders of what we can all accomplish if we are willing to allow our imaginations to soar and our hearts to honestly speak.
Rechy wrote many other books but this, his first, remains my favorite.
Many people are very turned off by his content. Much of it takes place in the seedy side of urban, gay life. Often it is not pretty. We are exposed to life at the edge. And that can be very revealing in sometimes wonderful ways.
The writing sparkles. It takes real insight and talent to produce such writing. Rechy worked very hard on his prose. If you want to learn about how to put words together to create a compelling story, read City of night.