City of Night

Published: 1963
Read: Summer 2020

“No rockets. Just the absence of loneliness. Thats love enough. In fact, that can be the strongest kind of love… When you don’t believe that’s even possible, then you substitute sex. Life becomes what you fill in with between orgasms. And how long does an orgasm last?”

Figured with MAL cancelled, it was a good time as any to review it.

Basic premise: In late 1950s/early 60s a young restless Texan man pursues a hustling life in NYC, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, building up to a significant conversation with a john who presents him with an opportunity to stop hustling.

I don’t have much experience with Beatnik writing so I don’t know if this is typical, but City of Night is a dense read mixing hustling stories and surreal introspection written in an colloquial style. Kind of a melancholic sexually charged “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” with less drugs. (Again, with melancholic 20th century gay lit. Now I’m realizing why Tales of the City was so beloved in that it depicted gay men in a more positive light. I digress.)

The novel is challenging not only in the writing style, but also in the specifics events being narrated. There are many events depicting toxic masculinity, gay-bashing, physical and emotional abuse, and even one incident of Nazism.

I found two things fascinating:
(1) How difficult it must have been to live a non-cishet life in the 1950s and how freeing it could be to just live life at your own pace, to just pick up, move somewhere, and start over. While I absolutely love the life I’ve built in DC area over the last decade, I do sometimes wonder what it’d be like to just pick things up and move to a new city. A different set of adventures. A different dating/friendship pool. Then I start getting bogged down with the logistics of moving there. There’s an inertia/fear. It takes a special kind of courage actually follow through, and I applaud all the people I know who’ve done it. I think that’s why I travel so much — to see if there’s a city that grabs my heart as much as DC has.

(2) The prescribed, unspoken rules for hustling. To succeed, one really had to master performative masculinity, much like the drag queens try to master performative femininity. Many characters, included the narrator, grappled with layers and layers of masked personalities to present what they think others want in hopes of getting their own needs fulfilled. More often than not, the characters end up bruised and isolated, their desires buried and unfulfilled. How much of that is because they were trying to live as their authentic selves…. and yet presenting an fabricated version of themselves?

As I was reading the novel, I found myself thinking about how much of our behavior are performative, and how hustling still happens, just in a different form. A few months after I finished the novel, I had an interesting exchange with a guy online who had seen my cigar pictures. I explained that I had been enjoying smoking cigars (a new hobby) with my quarantine pod over the summer. The guy latched onto the fact that it was a new hobby and projected his ideas of exaggerated masculinity onto me; he kept talking about how he would become my mentor and bring me out of the closet. (I’m not in the closet and had given no indication I was.) Apparently I needed to be taught how to smoke “properly” like a leatherman, how to act like a leatherman, and how to fuck like a leatherman or else I wouldn’t get any respect in the community. The conversation was offputting, yet I was fascinated at how much effort he was putting into his “leatherman daddy” persona trying to reel me in. A few months later, this person initiated another conversation, and he acted as if we hadn’t spoken before, and his tone was completely different.

I have a few more thoughts I’ll stop here with this: I am grateful for all the LGBT+ people who paved the way for people to come out and explore their gender and sexuality in relative safety. But we still have a lot of work to do to dismantle toxic performative masculinity.

It’s possible to hate the filthy world and still love it with an abstract pitying love.

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