Read Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy Free Online
Book Title: Midnight Cowboy|
The author of the book: James Leo Herlihy
ISBN 13: 9780743239738
Date of issue: 2003
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 5.51 MB
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Reader ratings: 3.5
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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.
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: weary blue, sick green, narcotics gray, sleepless white, dead purple.
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. Also like Joe, Rico Rizzi is a victim of the gilded promise of the American Dream. 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: a drink, a cigarette, a corner, a conversation, a smile, a stranger, an attitude.
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. (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.
"They's no Beautitude for the lonesome. The Book don't say they are blessed."
= = =
Talking of the movie, I have seen it several times before realizing there is a novel of the same name that inspired it. 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.
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