"The Coming of the Night"

The gay novelist veers toward camp and very nearly touches greatness.

By Frank Browning
September 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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More than three decades have passed since John Rechy presented himself to American readers as the cartographer of homosexual abandon in his first novel, "City of Night." Now a respectable teacher of literature at UCLA and a winner of PEN West's Lifetime Achievement Award, Rechy has returned to the abject territory of the night.

Hands -- he had not seen whose, had not had a chance to choose, could not tell how many -- flung him back down on the ground. Mouths licked his body, his balls, his cock. A tongue jabbed into his ass. Cocks slapped his face, stinging his flesh. Hands spread his legs open, wide, wider, hurting, wider. A hand held a cracked ampule of amyl to his nose, cupping it there to enclose the rush ...

Somehow, this isn't quite the territory of the good gay Scout and his wing-tipped lobbyist from the Human Rights Campaign petitioning Congress for marriage rights between ensigns on the USS Missouri. Though Rechy regularly appears on the list of this country's best gay writers, his work is fundamentally at war with the current buffed and blow-dried gay rights movement. He has spent his life excavating the cracks at the periphery of American culture, feeling his way toward that place within each of us where the ecstatic teeters on the edge of psychic abyss. And yet this time, the track to the abyss feels worn down, a bit dusty, as though too many feet -- Rechy's included -- have trodden there before.

"The Coming of the Night" owes much of its form and texture to two earlier American novels: Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," which follows the lives of five doomed characters through the day that they converge upon a rope bridge that plunges with them on it into a ravine; and "The Day of the Locust," Nathanael West's masterful Depression-era chronicle of two-dimensional Los Angeles caught in an inferno fueled by the relentless Santa Ana winds.

Rechy leads us through another such day in L.A., with (among others) a randy adolescent with perfect loins, a visiting New Yorker remembering an S/M debauch from the previous weekend, a slightly aging biker "dad" with a volcanic cock, a straight couple discovering they both are queer, a frustrated Brooks Brothers queen looking for love in a piss-stained underpass, three stock homophobic crack dealers and a drag porno auteur named Za-Za who entertains a famous studio boss with a droll live-action show on the mogul's lawn in hopes of elevating herself, in his eyes, into the next Truffaut. Finally the wind-fanned fires drive all the porno studs (the rebellious bottoms having rudely upended and ravaged the tops -- is nothing sacred?) bare-assed down into the canyon. By the time midnight arrives, nearly all the rest of the characters have fatefully converged on a little tool shack in a West Hollywood park, where heroism and sacrifice dance the Dionysian dance that we all know (the year is 1981) will send them plunging into the abyss of the epidemic.


Reduced to a plot and character outline, you might say: Over the top? Slightly short on nuance?

Even so, Rechy is a substantial artist, and he addresses what few of the slicker gay literati have even bothered to consider: the question of fate. If most of these characters are a few lobes shy of compelling, Rechy nonetheless targets the psychic collision between history -- the force of action and events beyond individual control -- and will. Further, he manages from time to time to draw us into the inner maelstrom of desire, that place where biology, perception and compulsion capture intention and redefine our sense of inner fate. To that end, "The Coming of the Night," however flawed, leaps leagues beyond the work of most of the suburban gay stylists and deserves credit as at least a camp cousin of the writings of those much greater 20th century novelists of history, fate and desire, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcma Marquez.

Frank Browning

Frank Browning reported for nearly 30 years for NPR on sex, science and farming. He is the author of, among other books, "A Queer Geography" and "Apples."

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