THE COMING OF THE NIGHT

By John Rechy

Grove. 244 pp. $24

John Rechy's new novel is a passionate argument for the moral position that makes the sexual outlaw--or the sex addict, to be less romantic about it--into a martyr, dying (of violence or AIDS) for the sins of gay men everywhere. Rechy may be perfectly sincere about making this absurd claim, but his sincerity does nothing to abrogate the absurdity.

Every addict has his litany of reasons, and every addiction has its long background and sad development. Sane gay men simply do not die to save others. There's nothing wrong with loving sex and getting lots of it, but to construe "wild" sex as a sacred ritual for the spiritual benefit of others is a case of bad faith. Everyone agrees that sex is fascinating and open to endless description and wonderment, but it is not in itself anyone's salvation.

Most of the writing in "The Coming of the Night" is like bad porn from the 1970s. It rings untrue from the very beginning. "Jesse--'the kid'--woke with one thought on his mind. Today he would do something wild to celebrate one glorious year of being gay--and it was great to be gay and young and good-looking and hot." The next paragraph is one italicized exclamation, one of the novel's campy theme words: "Wild!"

The book takes us gradually to the depths of gay cliche. From this: " 'Our home. We share everything.' 'Oh, yes, Thomas'--he kissed the older man on the lips--'our love of ballet, great literature, and, of course, the Divine Maria.' " Down to this: "He didn't want this to get out, with his muscular image, but every now and then he did like a good old-fashioned musical--he had two recordings of 'Gypsy.' He didn't keep the albums out, though--who would?--because that would make people think he was a musical-comedy queen, which he wasn't."

Much of the novel is taken up with long, oddly mundane stage directions for anonymous sexual encounters between men in the vicinity of West Hollywood. These catalogues sometimes go on for a page or so at a time, interrupted occasionally by something in italics to break the visual flow of words--like a lit match in a crowded back room.

The only effective aspect of the book is its structure. The action takes place during a single windy, hot summer day in 1981. We begin in the morning with all the various characters in their separate domains, most of them earnestly and obsessively concerned with having sex (at least once) before the night is over. As the day is spent, some of the characters move windingly toward a common destination, a park with a reputation for good nocturnal cruising.

The many characters include a street hustler, the cast of a porn film "in rehearsal," an older gentleman who drinks a great deal of scotch, a gay couple in an "open relationship," a racist black body builder, a man who decides on this particular day that he is gay and leaves his girlfriend (who turns out to be a lesbian), a real tough "dude" called Dave and a pack of "punks" in a car. It is quite a feat of organization to arrange for all these guys to show up in the same place at the same time.

The trouble with the copious descriptions of sexual goings-on is that they seem to be lacking something, some quality of playful, more-or-less-anonymous gay sex that is subtle and unspoken: an instinctive communication between men. In "The Coming of the Night" it's all spoken, mostly in short, flat sentences. "Wanna get together, muscleman?" "So what are you really lookin' for, dude?" It would be too depressing to believe that that's all there was to gay sex in California circa 1981.

In the end, Jesse--"the kid"--dies after being manhandled by nearly every character in the book, and we're supposed to think in tragic terms of a Christlike sacrifice. Forget all about that "wild" sex and illicit roaming and cruising--it's time to get serious now, on the last page of the book. But anyone headed home at 4:30 on a weekday morning after a wild night knows that not much spiritual good has come to the world on account of his own small ecstasy.