OCTOBER 6, 2016
IN 2013, JOHN RECHY’S seminal City of Night celebrated its 50th anniversary. In an interview with Slate that same year — when asked about the critical reception of the novel and its controversial subject matter — the author explained, “I never thought that the book was scandalous. I wrote it from my experiences, so when it came out, and the reaction was so harsh, I really was taken aback.” Indeed, the exploits of Rechy’s protagonist, a gay “youngman” hustler cruising the streets of the postwar United States, high on a cocktail of drugs, booze, and sex, shocked readers.
In his review of City of Night for The New York Review of Books (caustically titled “Fruit Salad”) in 1963, Alfred Chester stated, “[Rechy’s novel does] not bring anything new to literature, homosexual, sociological or American.” He goes on: “[City of Night] is mostly about the same old queens doing the same old things: swishing and bitching and cruising and falling in love and leaving each other and getting desperate and growing old and worrying over it.”
Chester’s reductive critique — coupled with the harsh and didactic tone of his review — ignores one of the truest achievements of City of Night. Rechy’s novel carefully excavates a life, both Latino and gay, lived on the edge, at the periphery. City of Night defined a subculture which, up until that point, had remained in the shadows, fearlessly exploring landscapes that are still the domain of renegades, outlaws, and those who see everything but are never seen themselves. There is agency in this observational ambivalence, allowing an author to explore these subcultures from a detached and unbiased position. It is difficult to execute, but when it works, it has the capacity to illuminate great truths about the nature of trust, longing, and desire.
Drew Nellins Smith investigates and uncovers similar territory in his new novel, Arcade. The protagonist of Smith’s book, like Rechy’s anonymous “Youngman,” remains similarly unidentifiable. “Sam,” as we learn, is not his real name. He explains that it is, in fact, “a name [he] sometimes used with men.” Sam is an aimless semi-loner with few friends. Among his circle, he’s the least successful of the bunch, often teased for his “low brow tastes.” Smith introduces us to Sam right after a particularly bad breakup with a closeted cop, who lives in a small Texas town several miles away. Sam resorts to stalking his former partner by obsessively calling him — sometimes muddling through awkward conversations, other times hanging up — making the hour-long drive out to his house, even hacking his email account and reading all of his messages. The cop left Sam for a “dumpy kid from Odessa,” he tells Malcolm, an online friend with whom he trades sexual fantasies and pictures.
To cope with his anguish, Sam finds solace in the XXX video booths of a local adult bookstore. “Like a casino,” we learn, “there were no windows or clocks [inside the bookstore] and there were cameras everywhere.” While Rechy’s “Youngman” finds himself drifting from city to city, existing in a world where time, memory, and fantasy cease to exist, Drew Nellins Smith fashions a narrative echoing Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, where humor and chaos work in tandem to subvert and critique prevailing notions of love, stasis, and attraction.
In the arcade, Sam encounters a series of flashy characters, each more disturbing and complicated than the last. There’s the man sporting an eyepatch whom he nicknames “Cyclops,” the marine with “[t]he letters ‘USMC’ … tattooed on both his arms,” the polished, well-manicured biker on a Harley. “To be honest,” he tells Sam, “I just came out here to get a blowjob.” We meet Bruno, the “attractive Hispanic guy” who is a clerk at the bookstore and who fellates Sam one night in the middle of the sales floor. At one point in the book, Sam stumbles on a powerful scene in one of the tight bookstore booths: a biker, “a thin, middle aged man with a ponytail and a long, gray beard,” on his knees, surrounded by four men. “The lone wolf brought men to climax one after another. No recip required. Men entered and left the booth […] It was disgusting and vile and fascinating.” There are businessmen and couples, construction workers in boots and faded jeans, fetishists in leather pants and dog collars, voyeurs, and speed freaks. “The building was a catalog of potential partners, all moving in circles and lines and figure eights, from booth to booth, hallway to store to hallway.”
Drew Nellins Smith guides us through this world of secret transactions and unwritten rules with skill and precision: when to look a potential hookup in the eye; how to know if the guy in the booth next to you might be interested in having some fun and what to do if he quickly changes his mind; how you can pull into the parking lot on some evenings and find it full of cars only to discover the arcade to be near empty, void of action. Here is an outlawed space with no jurisdiction and no rules. “Things were permitted there that were not permitted inside city limits,” Sam asserts, in these dimly lit arcade booths with warm walls and sticky floors. “The arcade had a musky, sweaty aroma […] it’s the smell of the male crotch and nothing else.” Sam’s world, which values anonymity and obfuscation, is also one of transit, where lasting connections are not easy to establish. “You discovered something about yourself out there,” Sam reveals. “A new branch of your personality emerged, the way it does when you take a new job or meet your boyfriends’ parents or go to French class. You’re a different person when you hang out with your redneck cousins who you only see once a year at Thanksgiving.” “When I went into the arcade this untapped part of myself — a little knot of roots — came to life, and a personality grew around it that never would have existed if I hadn’t gone there.”
With pitch-perfect tone and a voice that is simultaneously dark, erotic, and wry, Drew Nellins Smith offers us a protagonist who is neither hopeless nor hopeful, but somebody trying to forge lasting connections in a world that is all about moving away from — rather than moving toward — the things we value and cherish. Smith’s revelation of these secret transactions and this muted world is surprisingly instructive. It may help us to walk more humbly and love a little more genuinely in our manic world of too much light and too much brilliance.