The Coming of the Night (1999) is a novel that shouldn’t work. Readers ought to be left frustrated, disappointed, and confused. How, they may wonder, was the book authored by the mastermind behind City of Night (1963), a landmark in gay storytelling? Often, when plot fails, characters can save a text. We fall for their charm, empathizing with their struggles and relishing in their victories. Rechy fails to deliver on all accounts. The plot is weak and at times, cringe-worthy. Characters exist as flashes, brushed aside by a prose that tumbles forward. They are crass, self-righteous and often, down-right mean. There are no obvious characters to root for, no literary attachments to be found on the page.
This novel really shouldn’t work, yet, somehow, it does. And it is bloody brilliant.
West Hollywood, 1981. Gay culture is thriving. The plot: a day in the life of 12 characters looking for sex. Public sites of cruising overflow with promise and excitement. Whatever positivity and liberation may exist soon gives way to a darkness that overwhelms the text. For Rechy, sex exists as a demonic force. It does not arouse. It devastates.
Chapters consist of mini-stories, each following a specific character on a sexual vision quest. Supporting characters fall to the sidelines as major players march forth. Rechy makes excellent use of bit parts, allowing storylines to merge. Locations become familiar, background voices, recognizable. We become part of the city’s DNA, a fly on the wall that merely watches and observes.
Who populates this universe? Jesse, celebrating a year of “being gay” the best way he knows how; Paul, a partnered man struggling to cruise as his boyfriend embarks on a weekend of sex in San Fransicso; Dave, a Leatherman “bent on testing limits;” Thomas, lost in sexual fantasies; Buzz, hellbent on traumatizing West Hollywood’s ‘Fuckin’ faggots.” There are hustlers and priests. Porn directors dressed in drag. Bodybuilders and cowboys. Poppers are everywhere.
Santa Ana winds plague the neighborhood, trapping our characters within an increasingly dangerous environment plagued by desire and violence.
The sexual fulfilment they seek is elusive, something to be pursued, never attained. Some reframe from ejaculation, waiting for darkness before coming. It is edging to the extreme. What is it about the night that holds such promise? Why do they reject the prospect immediate satisfaction? Perhaps it is merely the promise of sex that drives them. This is certainly plausible. When sexual encounters do occur, they are never passionate, never encouraging. They are brutal, emblematic of an erotica that makes the toes crawl. Body shaming and racism are welcomed into the bedroom. Orgasms are deployed as weapons, vehicles of non-consensual domination. There is little logical reason for these men to routinely engage in the chase.
When the sexual encounters fail to fulfil them, rather than give up, they fuck with increasing determination. Their desperation merges with the scorching Santa Ann that set the city ablaze. Coming of the Night is a tale of destruction, of a landscape slowly burning away. Set in the summer of 1981, our characters stand at the brink of the AIDS epidemic. In July, The New York Times broke news of a “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” Thereafter, the cancer was to swarm through the gay community, along with other opportunistic infections. Rechy’s message is all too clear.
I wish I could say the novel feels dated, that sexual demons no longer plague us as a community. Doing so would be a lie. The novel is painfully relevant. As a gay man living in New York City, I know these characters. I have loved them. Danced with them. Cried with them. Cruised with them. I too operate within an unregulated sexual marketplace that offers little protection against abuse, bigotry and self-destruction.
Everything has changed. Everything remains the same.
In a rare moment of tenderness, two characters reflect upon the state of gay cruising. “This is all there is…sex and more sex and still more sex. That’s all God gave only us – and to no one else.” Is this intended as a critique or something to be celebrated? There is an ambivalence. If this is the core of our cultural identity, should we curtail sexual desire, relinquishing our uniqueness in the process?
The conversation continues:
“Would you die for it, for sex?” “If you asked me that when I had a cock in my mouth…yes I would. If you asked me afterward, I might reconsider.”
There is a shortsightedness at play, a reluctance to recognize the wider repercussions of cruising. Shortsightedness is certainly a criticism attached to the post-AIDS generation, most notably in Matthew Lopez’s phenomenal play, The Inheritance and Netflix’s Tales of the City reboot. Though Rechy’s characters may recognize the perils of frequent anonymous sex, they are unable to shift gears. They are trapped. This is something I witness all too often. For a novel as thin as The Coming of The Night, Rechy manages to deliver a powerful punch that lingers long after the novels tragic conclusion.
By Boris Abrams
The Coming of the Night by John Rechy. Paperback published September 2000 by Grove Press.