by John Rechy
Published by Grove Press
Published August 1, 1999
244 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
June 25, 2003.
Reading about John Rechy stimulated me to read Rechy’s 1999 novel The Coming of Night in which he returned to writing about gay sex/uality after some (depending on how you count, three or four) nongay novels. The Coming of Night is impressive in managing a large cast and glimpsing them over the course of a hot summer day in 1981 before bringing them all together for two kinds (voluntary and involuntary) of gang bangs.
The books’ characters also accomplish the feat of being more obsessed with sex than those in Numbers or Rushes. None, not even Jesse, the one seeking a lot of partners to celebrate his one-year anniversary of coming out, is counting (as Johnny Rio did in Numbers), and in the sort-of cross-section of gay L.A. ca. 1981, one character (Paul) is thinking about his partner (whom he knows is off having sex with other men). There is a hustler (Nick) having a difficult time not being out hustled by clients. He maintains the hustler facade (see Rechy’s break-out novel, City of Night) of being interested in money and not interested in what is done by whose mouth to his phallus. Most of the other characters (except Jesse, and a leather-clad biker named Dave) are desperately seeking validation of their desirability and warding off the traumas of rejection for being too old, too effeminate, too underhung, too overweight, or for being racially fetishized (Orville, who is busy fetishizing a cowboy image for himself).
Rechy’s horrified fascination (and incomprehension) with s&m is unchanged in the two decades since he wrote Rushes. Like various televangelists in regard to homosexuality, Rechy hates s&m but can’t leave it alone, and he has no interest in trying to understand what those engaging in it are seeking or feeling. Indeed, Rechy’s book, like Larry Kramer’s F-book, might appeal to Falwell and his ilk in confirming their view that homosexuality is damnation in this world as well as the next.
Rechy has projected his own narcissism onto most of the characters, while splitting off particular insecurities of his into separate characters. There is a surfeit of self-hatred sufficient to please Lou Sheldon, and with the darker night of AIDS already descending on the city of Our Lady and all the dark angels Rechy could easily be read as endorsing Pat Buchanan’s standing in for his god in interpreting AIDS as a punishment on the arrogance of sex-obsessed homosexual men during the heyday of “promiscuity.”
Setting the novel in the summer of 1981 lets Rechy have it both ways: to write breathlessly about the wild hedonism before AIDS was identified (which was first done in L.A.) and to hold the shadow of imminent catastrophe over it. (I guess there is precedent for the luridness excused by moral judgment in the biblical epics of Cecil B. de Mille and others.) Larry Kramer at least wrote his diatribe before AIDS. A chronicle published in 1999 of the last of the “golden age of promiscuity” is highly suspect, even leaving aside the recycling of Rushes, the frequent plot contrivances, the sometimes stilted dialogue (e.g., “Are you enjoying the great view your home provides of the Canyon, Thomas?”), the sententious explanations, the stereotypical set of narcissistic characters, the heavy-handed would-be symbolism of Santa Ana “devil” winds and wildfires, and the extremely manipulative ending. (BTW, does anyone actually delete a syllable and call them “santanas”? He is the native speaker of Spanish, but I only recall hearing “Santa Anas.”)
To be clear, I hate the ending, not that I am going to reveal what it is. I also lose track of the large cast of characters as Rechy cycles through them earlier in the day. I can’t even keep the straight gangbangers sorted out. A partial exception is the rehearsal for an “all-star” porno movie, Frontal Assault, directed beside the pool of a super-rich porn connoisseur by Za-Za (obviously Chi-Chi LaRue) who longs to be topped by her super-bottom protégé Tony Piazza (obviously Joey Steffano). The farce of this rehearsal is much funnier than any of Larry Kramer’s intended satire in Faggots. Extracting it would make one very funny story. The first one I’d have cut if I were Rechy’s editor (a position that probably does not exist) is the quest by Father Norris for Angel (such subtlety in naming…). And I’d have asked him to do something with what Linda seems to the gangbangers to be hiding as she rides around with them.
I don’t really know what “the pride goeth before the fall” means (or is it “cumeth”?): I obviously lacked a Christian indoctrination, but vanity is, as I understand it, a sin, one of which Rechy the obsessive pursuer of being desired and Rechy the sometimes lyrical, sometimes powerful, but often leadenly obvious wordsmith is irredeemably guilty. However, he seems personally to have escaped The Fall and has been garnering Life Achievement awards (PEN-USA West and Publishing Triangle ones are quoted from on the back jacket of the hardcover edition) and was able to recycle much from The Fourth Angel, Numbers, City of Night, as well as Rushes for his first publisher, Grove Press, in this portentous novel.
I have my doubts that Rechy understands “gay pride” any better than the Jesse before his gangbang, who “showed his pride by being gay every moment,” which seems to have meant for him as for Rechy himself, non-stop cruising. While I don’t want to hide or disparage sexuality or the pleasures of the hunt, there is more to being gay, being proudly gay, than an obsessive quest for evidence of desirability. There are gay men, unlike Rechy, who enjoy sex as sex rather than as validation of not being this or that category of the undesirable. Rechy neither understands nor has any ability to portray sex that is not experienced either as debasement or as ego-stroking—even when he presents an array of characters who are supposed to differ from his street persona of the 1950s that was already embalmed in 1981.
Is this too harsh? Perhaps the extravagant claims Rechy makes for himself as a great writer (to his biographer and others) made me sharpen my knives, but just as many youths trying to find something about homosexuality were frightened by City of Night, The Coming of Night is another lurid picture reinforcing homophobia that would scare any inexperienced gay reader about the doom that must be his future—in Rechy’s, Buchanan’s, Fallwell’s, and Fred Phelps’ view. A book that makes one young man’s celebration into imminent destruction might be Fred Phelps’ view of appropriate.
first published by epinions, 25 June 2003
©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray