Tuesday, January 22, 2008

City of Night

To apologize for what is sure to be a sloppy diary entry here, probably increasingly so, let me say that I have just taken some Benadryl and that soon it will probably be taking effect, making me more and more tired, more and more loopy.

I am reading John Rechy's City of Night right now, his first novel, published in 1963, which chronicled the life of a young hustler. I have seen it in bookstores many times over the years, picking up the book to read the back cover, the blurbs, the summary, and many times have thought about reading it, but for whatever reasons moved on to some other book, a book either less dated or more so. Most of the writing that I have read from the era in which gay fiction emerged as a genre of sorts, the sixties and seventies, has never really moved me in the way that other fiction has. I should also admit that I haven't dipped my toes too far in these waters, having read some allright stuff and normally am looking for the fuckingyeah stuff when I am picking up a book.

But on Sunday I was at the Strand, looking through the racks of fiction, really wanting to read some specific Kundera books (which I couldn't find) or any Saramago books (which I couldn't find used). I had just come from a web porn shoot, in which I had been a straight male (totally plausible, obviously). They had picked the name Travis for me, telling me that I was an East Village rocker, in a band, and had a girlfriend, a groupie. Their story conceived for me displayed an embarrassing lack of imagination and a reliance on clich├ęs so dated that they wouldn't even ring true anymore. What aspiring musicians can afford to live in the East Village? They would all be located out in Brooklyn - Bushwick, Williamsburg, maybe even Bed-Stuy. I didn't critique their backstory though, instead went along with this story, finding it funny, and also lost in thinking about the name they had chosen for me, Travis, and what that meant, what it evoked. It seemed meaningful that this was the name they had chosen, the first boy I ever desired and who has probably informed most of my sexual desire toward other people ever since. His name was Travis Ralston. He was in my middle school gym classes, always with his locker right next to mine, them being arranged alphabetically. He was a rough boy, a tough white kid with thick hands, pursed lips, an earring, and a buzz cut. He would call me faggot and punch me in the arm. I would go home and imagine him having sex with girls and jerk off thinking about that.

But I had just come from this shoot, had just come from being Travis, and there I was at the Strand, trying to find something that wanted me, looking for just the right book to read right then, something that jumped out at me. And there it was, City of Night, and with sex work already on my mind this book seemed totally appropriate.

The first section of the book, about his boyhood in El Paso, is bad. The writing is too dramatic, and even worse, it is attempting for literaryness with talk about death, windstorms, and parents, but it comes off as amateurishness, a pose he can't seem to stretch into. It is unnecessary setup. It's only ten pages or so, but it really should have been cut. The book would be much stronger if there wasn't such a weak opening.

There is also an introduction written by Rechy in my version of this book and in it Rechy defensively mentions all the bad reviews the book got by the literary establishment following its publication, saying that he proved them wrong by selling so many copies and by the book now being considered a "classic." I think it is a "classic" though for historical reasons, for being part of the beginning of that explosion in gay literature, part of that moment when "gay" became an identity. The writing isn't that great, but there are great moments here and there, and the story is more interesting than most to me, it being about this world of rentboys in another age, in an age when walking the streets of Times Square, rather than posting an ad from your house on to the Internet, was how one did business. It is a lost world that is never coming back, at least not in industrialized nations, the Internet having eliminated the need for gay cruising spaces, for public prostitution

Reading this book, about spaces I know - Times Square, Bryant Park, other locations in New York – makes me love my city more and makes me miss it more, this city that I never knew, this city that each day, each week, shifts more away from the gritty city described in these pages.

I don’t want to write a hustler book. In some ways, it seems too easy and that the attention the book gets is cheaply earned, that it rarely seems to be for the book, for the writing, but more so for the content. I am thinking of JT Leroy and that woman’s quick rise to literary acclaim for writing sad hustler stories. It has been done and it gets one pegged as something too static. I also think that there is a hostility toward sex workers when they do anything other than sex work, that the stigma is always there, and people are suspicious, wondering if whatever they are doing is not also a con, a selling of something. I think that this is what Rechy is vaguely referring to when he talks about the hostility he received from the reviewers when this book was written, that it wasn’t taken seriously as a literary work even though it was published by Grove Press, that it was because it was a story about a hooker written by one. This is perhaps why I too am hostile to works about hustlers, that I too am guilty of these same prejudices, judging the works more critically and suspiciously. An example of this in another area is Jason Preston, an ex-hustler, and the boyfriend of Marc Jacobs. In just about all gossip mentions of the couple, such as in Page Six or Gawker, Preston’s past as a hooker is always invoked (no matter how many years ago it was) and normally done so in a non-positive way, done in a way to diminish anything he may be doing or may ever hope to do.

And so I have stayed away from this subject in my fiction, in my few and infrequent attempts at it. Reading this book has again reminded me about things I want to write about and things I don’t want to. I have been reading it on and off today. A cold took hold today and I have been trying to smother it, to kill the thing in its early stages, with lots of cold medicine, and so I have been half-asleep if not totally asleep for most of the day. I did in those half-asleep moments though clean my apartment and do laundry in excited anticipation of the arrival of Bonnie tomorrow.

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