The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.
The Battle of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.
Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.
By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.
Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.
Sometimes, good is better than best.
City of Night is a novel about the lonely lives of the segment of the gay community that don’t make headlines for filing for same-sex marriage licenses.
In this novel as dark as its title, John Rechy brought the world of gay, purchased sex into mainstream literature much as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita did with pedophilia.
Sexually abused by his father, the unnamed narrator withdraws into books and movies. A loner, he goes from high school to the army, and from there to New York “looking for… perhaps some substitute for salvation.”
In one city after another, he hurls himself into the homosexual scene, wanting to be desired without having to reciprocate. He begins by using sex as a way to make money, but eventually admits he’s counting his conquests.
The narrator gets drawn into increasingly kinky situations which first repel, then attract him.
Finally offered a long-term gay relationship, the narrator turns it down. He would rather be miserably lonely than have a relationship in which he had to consider anyone other than himself.
Rechy is too good a writer for this story. He does such a good job showing the futility and waste of the pay-for-sex scene that readers are likely to lay down this novel for one that offers even a firefly-sized glimmer of hope.
City of Night
By John Rechy
Grove Press, 1963
Paperback edition, 308 pages
1963 bestseller #7
My grade C+
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni