Freedom's Fallout | Essay | Chicago Reader

Freedom's Fallout 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

"This is all there is...sex and more sex and still more sex," says a young gay man in John Rechy's The Coming of the Night, getting philosophical in the middle of some coke-fueled, no-holes-barred fucking on Fire Island in the summer of 1980. "That's all God gave only us--and to no one else--to compensate for all the shit they keep throwing at us."

His temporary partner recalls these words in Los Angeles a year later--after the man has died of an as-yet-unidentified disease--and he wants to disagree. So does Rechy, judging by his despairing portrayal of constant anonymous sex in his new novel. Through a series of increasingly cruel sexual encounters, the book seems to hold that casual sex has been the biggest turd lobbed at gays. Yet Rechy has always recognized that desire is not easily dispelled, and his fascination with cruising--in this book and throughout his career, which now spans nearly four decades--suggests an attraction at least as powerful as his repulsion.

The early-80s setting of The Coming of the Night turns out not to have been chosen for its obvious significance: AIDS is not a major plot point but rather a literary device foretelling doom, much like the Santa Ana winds that regularly appear throughout the book. Rechy has been developing this bleak vision as far back as 1963, with the publication of his first novel, City of Night. A not-undisputed classic, City of Night has always drawn passionate reactions. The critics either loved or panned the book on its release, and its reputation has been boosted since then by Mike Davis's urban-studies landmark City of Quartz, which identified the novel as one of the most important books ever written about Los Angeles, though Rechy's sprawling narrative moves through New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. The title's city of night is identified in the novel's first sentence as a metaphor for the United States.

Beyond its critical reputation, City of Night has long been a touchstone of underground cool; along with Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn, published a year later, it became a beacon to a nation of queers who hadn't yet caught the Greyhound out of their hometowns. Rechy's tour through the hustler and drag queen demimonde beat to the punch Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey--not to mention John Schlesinger--and reverberates decades later in the films of Bruce LaBruce and Gus Van Sant. It's even been speculated that the book was an inspiration for the Doors' "L.A. Woman," though Jim Morrison sang about a city at night.

City of Night drew much of its power, and much of its cred, from the fact that it's largely autobiographical. Rechy's unnamed hustler protagonist is, like the author, a Mexican-Scottish native of El Paso who travels around the country. The book's story is inextricably linked to Rechy's own; it began not as a work of fiction but as a letter to a friend. Parts of the book were published as Rechy wrote it, traveling, hustling, and presumably living scenes that later found their way into his novel. After the book was published, Rechy's romantic image as a cock-slinging minstrel was inevitable, helped along by his good looks and dust jacket photos that would make even Truman Capote blush.

But City of Night is not sensationalistic nor is it hard-assed like its many cinematic heirs. The narrator is a raw nerve seeking in great pain and earnestness nothing less than the meaning of life. His sexuality is as much a matter of confusion as anything else in his world. He falls in the hustler tradition of calling himself straight despite an endless series of male sex partners (surely there are other jobs available to young drifters). The gay men the narrator meets are for the most part miserable, despite the purportedly liberating availability of sex. This has upset some gay readers who shouldn't have strayed beyond Samuel Steward's Phil Andros series, with its cartoonish gay-lib hustler-hero. (Those hung up on such concerns will be happy to note that Rechy has long been "out and proud.")

Self-loathing homosexuals are a long-standing stereotype, by all accounts not a rarity in the era the book was written. There's more dignity in truth as one observer sees it than in mawkish uplift that anyone can spot as wishful thought. City of Night has flashes of defiance presaging the times ahead; one of its most memorable characters is a butch drag queen named Chi Chi who compulsively yells "Hey, world!" while flipping the bird to no one in particular and who decks a tourist harassing her in the Mardi Gras climax. Rechy's narrator is vaguely disgusted by the world he travels in, but he's unwilling or unable to commit to a more settled life. And he lives in constant terror of death--an obsession brought on, childishly and heartbreakingly, by the loss of his boyhood pet dog. In short, he's got an extreme case of his 20s. Clearly written from the heart worn on the narrator-author's sleeve, City of Night burns with emotion and a ferocious, street-level intelligence, though some surely have valued it more as travelogue, ethnography, and, as time has passed, history of a vanished world.

The Coming of the Night is a title clearly intended to evoke City of Night, but it's a far more formal and self-conscious book that seems more like the work of a first-time novelist. The critique of male sexuality is now the central theme, but it's been shoehorned into an awkward structure that leaves little room for credible internal wrangling.

Twelve intertwined narratives are told episodically across nine chapters; they unite in the tenth chapter, when most of the players converge on a West Hollywood cruising park for a brutal, abrupt conclusion, which is fortunately more complex and discomforting than the antigay murder Rechy telegraphs throughout. Twelve is a number historically endowed with spiritual significance--months, apostles, zodiac signs--and the activities in The Coming of the Night are described from the start as "an unrehearsed ritual." Rechy's always been interested in the symbolism of numbers and Catholic religious practice; his second novel was titled Numbers and he built the structure of a later work, Rushes, on the stations of the cross. I'm sure there's a reason for using this particular number of story lines in The Coming of the Night, but for practical considerations, such as characterization and readability, it's definitely a few too many.

The pages are filled with so many questing people that Rechy must heavily stylize them in order to keep each distinct. Most of the characters (all men, except for two minor characters who depart early) are in denial--shallow denial, close to the surface. Space is tight when you have to split 244 pages among this many people, so nearly everyone's conflicts must be spelled out as economically as possible. Internal struggles are established through overly simple formulas. Closeted Mitch convinces himself--but not his girlfriend--that he's not checking out a hot guy on the beach. Bodybuilder Ernie constantly reminds himself his dick isn't that small. ("He had read in a men's fitness magazine that the average cock was five inches--and his was over that by half an inch, at least, and the fact that he wasn't all that tall, five feet six, made it look even bigger.") Gay basher Buzz is obsessed with anal sex, and ends up raping another story line's protagonist, calling the victim "a queer"--and the kettle black--all the while.

In the book's weakest moments, the men are stock figures of the gay imagination. In two instances, however, the quick characterizations succeed and even lend the story lines the lean power of short fiction. One of these stories tells of a middle-aged man who uses booze and delusion to deny his flagging value in the sexual marketplace; the other follows a priest named Father Norris as he searches for a parishioner's hustler son. Either of these could have stood alone as pieces more effective than the whole of the novel.

Since some characters are far more complete than others, the downshift into the less successful segments can be painful. The problem is compounded by the fact that the 12 stories are always serialized in the same order. Nine times in a row, the book's best story--Father Norris--is cut off by the weakest. The priest's search for the hustler is motivated not by desire for the boy but rather a mania to see the tattoo of a fully naked Christ he is said to have on his back. Rechy deftly avoids the usual gay-priest cliches and instead endows the character with a sexualized spirituality that illustrates the inherent homoeroticism of the priesthood and simultaneously refuses to condescend to same-sex desires outside of a gay context. Like Teresa of Avila, his faith is not a mask for his erotic impulses, but rather an integral part of it. He has no interest in the hustlers he mistakes for the tattooed boy, caring only to see the picture of Christ "concealing nothing--nothing, finally!--in his total and passionate sacrifice for us!"

Unfortunately, Father Norris is the warm-up act for a far less accomplished scene, set in the porno biz. Poolside at a closeted mogul's mansion, a drag queen porno director--named Za-Za, no less--leads the cast of her upcoming Frontal Assault in a "rehearsal" for the enjoyment of the mogul and his guests. Za-Za liberally sprinkles her speech with French malapropisms and aspires to direct a "legitimate" film, "a kind of Last Year at Marienbad but with real ghosts and in bright color." A little of her goes a long way, and the equal-time provision of the book's structure extends her far past her usefulness. The memory of Boogie Nights further dampens the story line, and so does the affinity between the characters and real-life porn figures of the present day (the unrequited love story between drag queen director Chi Chi LaRue and her late star Joey Stefano was told better, barely, in Charles Isherwood's Wonder Bread and Ecstasy; they don't register as much more than an anachronistic reference here). Worst of all is the inane twist that's supposed to make this scene a laugh riot: porn "tops" suddenly wanting to be fucked by men who previously had worked only as "bottoms." But the badly miscalculated sense of outrageousness and obliquely motivated characters serve only to damage the credibility of the whole.

Using ritual as a structural model is a dangerous choice for a novelist. Ritual relies on archetypes and consistent human emotions, and if the novelist does not sufficiently embellish these with specific details the work will verge on allegory. The Coming of the Night does not leave the reader with illumination or an emotional reaction--aside from revulsion at the manner of death in its last pages. The effect is rather like taking a smutty reading comprehension test and being asked to state the moral. The moral of the story, I guess, is that sex isn't enough because it isn't love; it can't sustain or save us. There is mitigating ambiguity in the fact that this message is put across in a novel which, unlike City of Night, could have some potential as a stroke book, but also unlike City of Night or any other nuanced work of fiction, the moral of the story is pretty much all there is--besides sex and more sex.

As in other points in his long career, Rechy seems to be withholding emotion, struggling to distance himself from the prejudices he's suffered as a sexy author of sexual books. In The Coming of the Night, the anguished young man from more than three decades ago has sadly chosen to think and preach, when he used to think and feel and seek.

As girl-heavy as The Coming of the Night is boy-bound, The BUST Guide to the New Girl Order--a collection of articles from the high-end zine--is unabashedly, determinedly pro-sex. The two books' opposing viewpoints are both reactions against the same era--the late 60s and early 70s, a period that saw the emergence of both the women's and gay liberation movements.

While gay lib fed into the storied promiscuity of the era, the women's movement was largely distrustful of sex, as BUST editors Debbie Stoller and Marcelle Karp illustrate in a sharp overview of feminist history (the introduction to each section reviews past philosophical positions, which provide a context for the reprints that follow). First warned that good girls don't, then counseled that right-on wimmin don't either, the liberated 90s woman BUST represents is not about to take no for an answer. Rechy's cautiousness comes from being a veteran of a scene that's been sexually unfettered for all of recent memory; BUST contributors are making up for lost time. They don't see all sex as good, of course, but the main problem is a bad choice of partners. One partner fondly remembered here--the family dog--tops anything in Rechy's oeuvre.

Karp and Stoller's vision has gained focus in book length. BUST contributions are typically short and written from personal experience. Coming a few at a time in the zine, they've always been charming and fun; collected in greater numbers here, each becomes more recognizable as a piece of a larger puzzle. Organized thematically into sections like "Sex and the Thinking Girl," "Yo' Mama, Yo' Self," and "Feminists Fatale," they have the force of a jargon-free patchwork manifesto that neatly sums up the 90s girl motif. A spiritual daughter of the original Sassy, this is for those who want to be the girl with the most cake and eat it too. (Courtney looms large in these pages and even contributes an insider's view of bad girls.) Flagrantly heterosexual (for the most part), the BUST girl's a "garter-belt feminist" in the Madonna mold. As much of 90s pop culture has already demonstrated, glamour-girl sexual aggressors are great fun to cheer on as they spice up our lives. I only wish the contributors to the BUST book weren't so frustrated with their boys; it's a problem they could solve if they only shared their editors' enthusiasm for the Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator. I was also sad to read in the book's intro that Karp and Stoller still work day jobs, though it turns out they're not exactly slinging hash. From the powerful yet breezy tone of BUST, I had assumed they were from the usual zine-maker demographic--disgruntled temps. It was a surprise to find that Karp is a producer for HBO and Stoller holds a PhD from Yale. Suspicions are rightly raised every time an academic comes poaching on "underground" territory.

The romantic lore says zines are the creation of people without other venues for putting their ideas into the world; the knee-jerk reaction would be to tell the BUSTers to take their boola boola back to the tenure track and leave the zine scene to less pedigreed DIY babes like Darby from Ben Is Dead, Al Hoff from Thrift Score, and Barbara from Plotz. But BUST never feels like it's slumming, and, really, not even TV producers or intellectuals get to say exactly what they want exactly how they want to. In the pages of BUST, the freedom of self-publishing turns out to be a close sister of all the other freedoms the fed-up girls of the 90s want, whether they're spending their days grant writing or answering phones for the Man.

The Coming of the Night by John Rechy, Grove Press, $24.

The BUST Guide to the New Girl Order edited by Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller, Penguin, $15.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andrew Epstein.

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by John Sanchez

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Tempel Lipizzans Tempel Farms
June 19
Performing Arts
Manic Mondays Frances Cocktail Lounge
November 20

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories