Cowboy: A Novel


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Return to Book Page. Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy. Joe Buck, naively charming Texan cowboy, seeks his fortune in the Big Apple, but encounters Ratso Rizzo, a sleazy, small-time con man with big dreams. Living on the fringe of society, these two outcasts develop an unlikely bond. This is the book on which the Academy Award-winning film was based. Paperback , pages. Published by Scribner first published August 1st To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Midnight Cowboy , please sign up.


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Lists with This Book. Bookended between the ivory tower academic solitude of "Stoner" and the desperate plight of the forgotten poor of Mumbai in "A Fine Balance" I have discovered another kind of loneliness between the pages of James Leo Herlihy. It is the loneliness of a Forest Gump unrelieved by the sort saccharine, fairytale happy endings that pulled this particular movie down for me.

Instead of a box of chocolates, Life has given Joe Buck only sour lemons.

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One night he dreamed a dream that would become recurren Bookended between the ivory tower academic solitude of "Stoner" and the desperate plight of the forgotten poor of Mumbai in "A Fine Balance" I have discovered another kind of loneliness between the pages of James Leo Herlihy. One night he dreamed a dream that would become recurrent, a dream of an endless chain of people marching across the side of the world. From his vantage point in some chill and dark and silent corner he could see them coming up from over the eastern horizon, all joined at the bellybutton by a golden rope of light and walking to a rousing march beat, and he could see them moving along until they had gone out of sight behind the western horizon.

There were people of all kinds, bus drivers and nuns, musicians and soldiers and ten-cent-store girls; there were chinamen and pilots, hillbillies and fat men and red-headed women; you could find miners and bank clerks there, millionaires, store detectives, swamis, babies, grandmothers, thieves; look for any kind of person in this golden rope and there would be one, a whore, a dwarf, a saint, a crazy man, cop, teacher, reporter, pretty girl, bookkeeper, shortstop, ragpicker.

There seemed to be every kind of person but his own. He made many attempts to join them, running up close to the marching stream of golden people, hoping to discover an opening big enough to slip into; but just as he would find one there would be a rapid closing of the ranks, the chain would become tight and exclusive and impossible to break into, and the dreamer was forced to remain always on his chill and dark and silent edge.

Joe is not very smart. Abandoned early in life by three hookers, one of whom may have been his mother, sent to be raised by a self-centered and round-heeled grandmother, bullied by all the other school kids for his slowness, rejected by the army, betrayed by the only young man that seems to want to spend time with him, Joe needs to reinvent himself if he is to escape the dead-end life as a dishwasher in Atlanta.

Now at this time in which Joe Buck was coming out of the West on that Greyhound bus to seek his fortune in the East, he was already twenty-seven years old. But he had behind him as little experience of life as a boy of eighteen, and in some ways even less. Joe Buck, as we first make his acquaintance, is the poster boy of the American Dream. Tall, blond, handsome, dressed in brand new boots, jeans, leather coat and cowboy hat, he is ready to set out for New York in pursuit of happiness.

This confident and decisive persona is a glamour he sets on himself with rousing speeches in front of a mirror, a disguise born from a childhood spent glued to a TV screen watching John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart fight out the bad guys and always winning. And he felt most of all the possession of himself, inside his own skin, standing in his own boots, motivator of his own muscles and faculties, possesor of all that beauty and hardness and juice and youngness, box-seat ticket holder to the brilliant big top of his own future, and it was nearly overwhelming to him.

In the very next scene, of Joe handing in his resignation as a kitchen boy, we find out about the tragic disconnect between the inner fantasies and the harsh reality outside "That was the way Joe imagined it. This is what actually took place Joe has few talents to build his future on, and from this meagre supply he picks on his early sexual conquests to pave the way to a life of luxury and contenment: A lone, lonesome childhood had taught him that today, whatever day he was in, was barren as a wasteland with nothing in it worth looking at, and it had made his mind an inveterate wanderer, nearly always gypsying about in places and situations in which a worthwhile tomorrow might take place.

Even while laboring over some lady in the hope of pleasuring her so keenly he would win her devotion forever - for this was what he sought in these early acts of love - even at such moments his mind would trot on ahead somewhere, perhaps savoring a future time in the life he would have made with her.

This disconnect will accompany our fake cowboy to New York, where his dreams of becoming a highly paid gigolo for the rich ladies of the metropolis come face to face with the predatory nightlife of Times Square: They wove their way through the traffic of people whose complexions appeared never to have seen the real sun, only this topsy-turvy daylight of neon and electricity, a kind of light that penetrated the first layer of skin, even cosmetics, illuminating only the troubled colors under the surface: Yet, even as he loses all his money and all his possessions, as his brand new cowboy outfit gets stained and torn, as he is ignored not only by the rich ladies but even by the midnight lurkers after illicit affairs, Joe Buck finally finds someone to share his loneliness with.

After smoothly swindling Joe of his diminishing cash, crippled and diminutive Rico 'Ratso' Rizzo takes the big and naive cowboy under his wing. Ratso knows all about loneliness too. Bullied for his physical deformities, orphaned at a young age and forced to survive on the street, one step ahead both crooks and police, Ratso is as quick witted as Joe is slow.

In his case, it is the hope to escape the cold and the wind of the asphalt jungle and go to Florida: In this splendid place he claimed the two basic items necessary for the sustenance of life - sunshine and coconut milk - were in such abundance that the only problem was in coping with their excess. Even as both the dreams of rich and randy women with money to burn and of a dolce farniente on tropical beaches are proving elusive for Joe and Rico, an unlikely friendship develops as the two share an abandoned room in a condemned building and roam the streets in search of a way to earn their daily meal.

The pair of them became a familiar sight on certain New York streets that fall, the little blond runt, laboring like a broken grasshopper to keep pace with the six-foot tarnished cowboy, the two of them frowning their way through time like children with salt shakers stalking a bird, urgently intent on their task of finding something of worth in the streets of Manhattan.

Herlihy casts his net wider later in the novel, expanding his theme of loneliness to the whole social scale, from the bottom feeders to the high flying socialites in their penthouses. In a party set piece he brings Joe and Ratso finally in contact with the affluent world, only to shout out loud that the Emperor's new clothes are an illusion: One couple - boys of college age, one white, one brown - sat in the middle of the floor holding hands, but it wasn't so much an interracial romance as a marriage of two shades of despair; they were joined at the hands but not at the eyes; each of them frowned into some distance of his own.

Many of the lone persons, male and female alike, seemed to be ashamed of their solitary condition. You could see them casting about for a place to lose it, a way to camouflage it or for something to attach it to: I have written a lot about the events in the book, but I don't consider them spoilers, since this here is a social and character study, and not an action thriller.

Midnight Cowboy

Plus, there's the excellent movie version with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman that everybody should be familiar with. It's a modern disease, at least to my eyes, the way we are driven to judge people by impossible standards of beauty and success, in endless publicity shots and reality shows and glamorous big budget movies, and look with shame or indifference or disgust at the homeless, the elderly, the crippled, the not so smart, as if it is somehow their fault that they are not living a life of fun and plenty.

Joe and Rico deserve our compassion and our understanding, as they didn't have the blind luck of affluent parents or a solid social safety net to keep them away from a life of crime and humiliation. The Book don't say they are blessed. The screen version is one of my all time favorites, but I would still recommend reading James Leo Herlihy original story, for the incredibly effective prose, comparisons with Carson McCullers are not as far fetched as you might think and for the extra insights into the characters backgrounds and motivations. View all 6 comments. This was hard to read. Authors like Cormac McCarthy seem to want to sink into and wallow in depressing and disheartening; Herlihy was just handing me a world and saying, "here.

I actually took a break from this book for a day or two because I wasn't ready to be brought back into Joe Buck's mind. Herlihy demonstrated a great ability to write compact straightfoward prose. I was amazed by the way he show This was hard to read. I was amazed by the way he showed me Joe Buck's helplessness and confusion without suggesting I look down on him or pity him.

It's obvious that Joe is not intelligent but Herlihy doesn't say he's dumb, or even show him doing stupid things, he just gives us a character that's unable to process the world, to make contact with anything real. Having seen the movie - which is remarkably faithful to the book - I knew what was coming at the end, but as always the book contained so much more. I wanted to stop reading.

I wanted to escape the inevitable. The last line made me cry. The book is a relentless assault of loneliness and confusion and hurt. Great moments in feline cinema 2: Sure, everyone knows the movie. But I didn't even know it was originally a novel until quite recently. That is unfortunate because the novel is a brilliant portrayal of down-and-outers. Herlihy's tale of dreams and struggles in unforgiving New York is as relentless as it can be but there is a certain poetry in the characters of Buck and Ratso.

The biggest difference in book from film is that we find a out a lot more about Buck; his upbringing, his torments, and Great moments in feline cinema 2: The biggest difference in book from film is that we find a out a lot more about Buck; his upbringing, his torments, and why the likable but not-so-bright kid is so easily manipulated and trusting.

He doesn't even make it to New York until the second third of the novel and Ratso doesn't appear until close to the middle of the book.. Buck and Ratso are certainly one of the oddest and most interesting couples in either novel or film. I highly recommend this book whether you seen the film or not. A superb book that became a classic film. Feb 15, Paula rated it really liked it. I have never seen the film of 'Midnight Cowboy' and I was happy that I had not seen the film when I started reading the book, I could see the characters as I would see them as opposed to two actors on a screen.

The book is also about a ever changing America and what the America dream is for both characters, a sad book in so many ways but also funny at times especially the bickering between Joe and Rizzo. Joe's naiveness and personality shines through the book and you can not help but like him and Rizzo too, they are characters you will care about.

Read it if you get the chance. I mean those aren't shoes I walk in or have even come close to walking by. I formed compassion, and in a lot of ways, I related. Sorry for the caps, but it has to be emphasized that this isn't an easy, breezy sunshine of a read. I hadn't seen the notorious X-rated movie before reading the book as all I did know of the film was that it won a Best Picture Oscar, starred Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and from the poster, these dudes looked shaaady as all get out. My vagueness on the story and the movie helped me to enjoy being kind of shaken out of my plush environment.

All of Midnight Cowboy is written with clarity and ease, yet Herlihy has some wonderful lyrical moments that make this a smart and complex character study. He even writes the sex scenes and there are a few as far from trashy as possible and when the scenes are hard to partake the tension and stickiness is felt. He would be since he lacked a solid father figure, his guardian was an irresponsible grandmother, and he was raised by the glorious lie that is television.

I always find it fascinating that there is someone out there worst off than you. As bad off as you can be, you could even be living in the same house as someone and they are having a worst time than you. Midnight Cowboy had that aspect.

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But oddly at the core of this personal hell is a friendship, and that is between Joe and Ratso. What's really sad is that as opposite and lopsided they are this is probably the only friendship that these two have ever had, and their reliance on each other, while not conventional is valid. Ratso appears to be the villain as he leads Joe on in the beginning, but I felt sorry for him most of the time because his life had just been one fail after another and crazily, Joe was the tangible bright spot in his life.

Midnight Cowboy made me realize that that concept is quite silly and narrow-minded. In the case of this story, almost everyone is deplorable in some shape or form. All are greedy for money and recognition, all do each other in, and will stoop to the lowest of ways to get it, yet New York City itself can be viewed as the monster that plagues our main and secondary characters. The city makes them this way. Herlihy paints a New York that is unforgiving, malicious, and has its occupants huddling in doorways, stealing, lying, tossing morals and pride aside.

I have come to understand that New York City from the late '50s into the late '80s was not the swankiest, commercialized glittering place we see today, as all that's shown now is pretty much a veil over its past. At the moment, Taxi Driver and The Warriors come to mind with these seedy, rooting for the downtrodden fables, and Midnight Cowboy shows the same murky, vicious, and soul crushing NYC.

The movie which I finally got around to seeing and ended up loving too especially shows that aspect well, as when the characters became dirty, cold, and hungry, I became so as well. Hoffman is fucking fantastic in the role, by far one of my all-time favorite performances by an actor, if you want to see the movie see it for that performance.

Another villain is actually Joe Buck himself. So if you want to be shaken out of your shoes and walk in the stench and pain of Joe Buck's cowboy boots, then by all means, read it. It's a tough book, but don't let that discourage you, it's an excellent story that is guaranteed to make you think differently about the people you may pass by in the street and about how isolation and loneliness can take us down dark alley ways.

View all 4 comments. People interested in gritty, thoughtful fiction. Having seen, and loved, the movie "Midnight Cowboy," I was curious to read the book on which it was based. This is a terrific novel about an amazingly neglected man-child trying to find his way in the world. The whole first part of the novel was left out of the movie, which begins with Joe Buck's arrival in New York City, and it is important to make real sense of some of the character's ideas like that he could make a living off of grateful women since NYC is filled with "faggots".

In the movi Having seen, and loved, the movie "Midnight Cowboy," I was curious to read the book on which it was based. In the movie, he was played as just plain dumb, but in reading the book I had the sense that he was a person who had received so little guidance from or connection with other human beings, that he knew very little except for what was in his own head. Like "Of Mice and Men," this book is a story of unlikely -- and profound -- male friendship.

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I wish there were books of the same caliber portraying such bonds between women. This is not exactly a spoiler alert, but I did find it interesting that the ending of the novel was less bleak than that of the movie. I came to have real affection for Joe Buck, and I hope he found his place in the world and lived out his dreams of love and domestic bliss.

May 03, David rated it liked it Shelves: As promised, our hero is young, dumb and full of cum. He may not be a real cowboy, but he's certainly from Mishima Country. But the rest of the story was a bit of a disappointment. There's not as much sex as you'd think, the violence is weird, there's a really boring scene at Warhol's Factory or similar and I found it hard to care about Ratso.

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Feb 20, Book Urchin rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I loved how Joe Buck's character is portrayed as completely naieve, vacuous even, without alienating the reader. He is completely lovable, even though utterly one dimensional, his character could be boiled down to his own simple understanding of who he is, of which he keeps having to remind himself, by looking in every reflective surface ; a cowboy and a hustler, two tokens of identity he has gleaned along the way from a failed father figure, and a case of mistaken identity in a nighttime cafe.


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Joe is confounded again and again by the conniving nature of other humans, whom he soon realizes are just out for what they can get, which always seems to be a considerable amount from the trusting Joe Buck. However, Joe's alienated life in New York causes him to fall in with his betrayer the cripple Ratzo Rizzo with whom he forms a farcical, but profoundly touching kind of family.

Joe eventually takes care of Ratso like a son and finds a meaning for his life through this relationship. The crux of this story is isolation from others, and the intense desire to bridge the gap and belong in society. This book could only have been written by someone who knows what it feels like to be an outsider in some respect; someone who understands how it is possible to prefer the company of an enemy to the prospect of being alone again. Joe has a recurring dream of a marching line of people stretching around the globe dressed in the uniform of their profession, with a great chain of golden light connecting them, while he watches from some dark corner.

This is the way we are given insights into Joe's character and past; through images, dreams, feverish imaginings which he is not capable of rightly processing as thoughts. Through reading the book we get the impression we know Joe Buck just about as well as he knows himself. The type of isolation portrayed in the book is special kind of postmodern isolation.

Joe's own isolated and sad life is contrasted to the dream he thinks he should be living, his clues on the meaning of life are images copied to his mind from billboards, movies and magazines, his life he feels, is about to happen any minute, but always seems to be just out of reach. He reminds himself of his own value by being a recognizable image himself a cowboy, a hustler, although really he is neither , by constructing an identity he feels will fit in with his dream of people tied together by light.

When he feels challenged or saddened, he reminds himself that he is worhty of his place in society by looking in mirrors. However it is not for a long time that he realises he cannot sustain himself as a human by just being an image. My favourite quote from the book is a piece near the start, which describes Joe's fear of silence: Away from it for any length of time he actually became confused and disoriented.

It had enemies in it that only sound could drive out" Oct 26, Robert Rifkin rated it it was amazing.

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Midnight Cowboy is one of those books that has not profited from the reputation of its far-better-known movie version. Almost everyone has seen the great John Schlessinger movie of the sixties but very few have read the source novel, also called Midnight Cowboy. And what a shame! Every incident and chara Midnight Cowboy is one of those books that has not profited from the reputation of its far-better-known movie version. Every incident and characterization is perfectly rendered and the reader instantly forgets that he or she is reading a novel. That is the highest praise a novel can receive.

Apr 23, Andy rated it liked it Shelves: Although comparisons are odious, Midnight Cowboy is similar in tone to City Of Night and unfortunately I think the latter work is a superior novel. I think John Rechy conveys the feeling of hustling as an escape from loneliness a lot more subtly than Midnight Cowboy, which never fails to remind us page after page that Joe Buck is lonely.

The book is also facile in its use of stereotypes, most notably in the Lower East Side hipster party scene. That part was almost embarrassing in its Charlton Com Although comparisons are odious, Midnight Cowboy is similar in tone to City Of Night and unfortunately I think the latter work is a superior novel.

That part was almost embarrassing in its Charlton Comics view of the beautiful people. Not a terrible book but you'd do a lot better watching Jon Voight breathe life into this one-dimensional character. The movie is better, one of the great movies of all time. But this is still a great story about loneliness and friendship. It is a fitting tribute to the lives of those destitute people we would rather not know too much about. In total honesty, when I finished Midnight Cowboy , I thought it was okay. According to the Goodreads rating system, that's two stars.

But, in the end, I couldn't do it. The book is just too sad, and I felt like an ass giving two stars to such unrelenting misery. Certainly, the main character occasionally has sex with men, but always in the context of hustling, whether for money or for companionship. What Midnight Cowboy is, is a novel about poverty. It doesn't just depict economic poverty at its harshest and bleakest some passages were hard to get through , but also the emotional poverty caused by neglect and rootlessness.

The two form a tenuous friendship, but they still fail to make any money. Their dire poverty and Rizzo's rapidly failing health soon force Joe to rob a client in order to afford a bus ticket to Florida, where Rizzo has always dreamed of going. While on the bus to Miami, however, Rizzo dies of pneumonia , leaving Joe completely alone in the world.

Schlesinger explained the great success of the film as its exploration of loneliness. The movie, which was adapted by screenwriter Waldo Salt , was not entirely faithful to the book, omitting or altering some aspects of Joe's early life. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Midnight Cowboy First edition cover. Retrieved from " https: Pages to import images to Wikidata. Views Read Edit View history. This page was last edited on 9 August , at

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Cowboy: A Novel Cowboy: A Novel
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