Canon Fodder is an ongoing series of essays where writers talk about the books they’ve held close relationships with in their lives and why those books deserve a second read by a broader literary audience. The first essay in the series looked at the young adult novel, Catherine, Called Birdy.
Midnight Cowboy, James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel, is known more for its movie version than for the novel on which the movie is based. The title is dropped into conversation casually, with no explanation. The movie comes up in reference to Jon Voight’s career: as in “Who is Jon Voight?” “You know, that actor who was in Midnight Cowboy.” And that is where it stops. Whether the other person has heard of the movie or not, the conversation is over.
Given Midnight Cowboy’s premise: a naïve Texan moves to New York City to make a living providing carnal pleasure to rich, lonely ladies, it might be difficult to see how its contents could be of merit. True to the book and movie’s title, he dresses as a cowboy. There is nothing in that description to indicate the gravitas with which Herlihy treats loneliness and the ache that comes from wanting a different life than the one a person has. But despite the out there premise, Midnight Cowboy has lessons for writers: the novel’s action is not typical; there are no existing archetypes on which the characters are based (the characters might be seen in other types of novels, but not literary ones). And because Herlihy forces interior growth out of the main characters while the larger world treats them with hostility, Midnight Cowboy earns its literary status. The novel makes the most of big ideas like “loneliness,” and creates Joe Buck and Rizzo around them. But nobody talks about this when discussing Midnight Cowboy.
Because of its stark representation of reality, the movie has captured people’s imaginations in ways the book hasn’t. The movie version of Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969 and was X-rated, but the distinction was eventually lowered to “R.” That’s just one of the fun facts that surrounds the movie. It is also characterized as being the only X-rated movie screened by a sitting president (Nixon); Elvis Presley wanted the role of Joe Buck; Dustin Hoffman spent time among indigent and food insecure people in New York City tenements to perfect the character of Rizzo, and so forth. Perhaps more importantly, Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated movie to win an Academy Award. Maybe the win contributed to the lowering of the film’s rating. It is difficult to tell. What can be derived from the controversy surrounding the movie is that Midnight Cowboy’s legend is often bigger than its story, and that is unfortunate. Once people understand that the narrative involves a hustler, the film contains a popular song by Harry Nilsson, and is set when 42nd Street in New York City still had a certain salacious reputation, they think that they “get” the movie. Generalizing it, however, does a disservice to the book, too.
Midnight Cowboy is referred to in an array of popular culture settings—from Seinfeld episodes to Beck videos, where cowboy outfits, transistor radios, and mannerisms indicate the main characters for people who have an idea about either the book or the movie. But rarely does anyone want to play up the loneliness that drives Joe Buck and Rizzo to move from putting up with each other to becoming actual friends. The complicated aspects of the book (or movie) are seemingly difficult for people to talk about; Midnight Cowboy is more than ridiculous cowboy outfits: It is a story of survival, in addition to the art of finding an unlikely ally.
Like others in my circle of Midwestern graduate students and writers, I saw the movie before I read the book. I was streaming a premium cable channel’s offerings on my tablet, and selected Midnight Cowboy because it seemed like a figment of my imagination that would fade before I could figure it out. It is like constantly hearing the name of someone, yet never meeting them. Your subconscious might make you feel as though you have met that person, but that’s not the truth. I clicked play to get a formal and complete introduction. As I watched the opening credits and listened to the sad song “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson, I saw the words “Based on the novel…” stunned because no one had told me there was a book involved. The song plays as the movie opens, before the credits. Viewers are treated to Joe Buck unpacking his carefully purchased cowboy hat and boots, and sliding his slender frame into close fitting pants. His outfit is topped by a rust/light brown fringe jacket. His showering and dressing scenes are cut with scenes of his workplace, where the cook, waitress and manager all scream “Where is that Joe Buck?” as dishes pile up. In the meantime, Joe is dressing and talking cowboy tough into the mirror. He goes to work just to tell the manager, “You know what you can do with those dishes.” And strides out into the Texas sun, toward the bus station that will take him to what he thinks is his New York destiny. On his way, a large truck nearly runs him over and the driver blares the horn to warn him. A noodling acoustic guitar-based riff backs Nilsson’s lyrics “Everybody’s talkin’ at me / I can’t hear a word they say.” Even the guitar motif is lonely.
More or less, I kept my promise. I had watched the movie in 2014. I didn’t read the book until 2017. It was as though deep down, I thought something was wrong with me if I sought out a book like Midnight Cowboy. It would be like when I went to find The Story of O, after being at a party where it was passed around. I only read half a page there, but I realized that some people at the party had started handing the copy to the person next to them just to show off their so-called sophistication. I feigned boredom, but secretly wanted a copy. It was dirty. No one showed me a secret copy of Midnight Cowboy. I became engrossed in the novel, and even after I had read it, the book’s merits spoke to me. It was more than male prostitution, more than New York City’s 42nd Street in its seedy days (although it is that, too, and that is important). It was people. When I watched the movie, I imagined myself in the abandoned apartment that Joe Buck and Rizzo hole up in. I shivered with the cold they covered themselves against. The closest thing I had to that experience was when the heat went out in my Minnesota apartment during graduate school. Even though the frigid inside temps only lasted a day, it was enough to make me feel as though I was getting sick. I wasn’t necessarily alone, and I had a car and a landlord to call to fix it. Joe and Rizzo had no one but themselves.
When I finally got my own copy of Midnight Cowboy, it was 2017. I hurried into my favorite local coffee house in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The coffee house is tucked in second from the corner, in a strip of one-story businesses, including a health food store and an independent pharmacy. The pharmacy is the bright spot in dark gray in an area drenched in beige brick on both sides of the street. It sits across the four-lane street from another strip of stores with two stories. Near the entrance sat a metal book rack with three or four shelves with a sign inviting patrons to “take one and leave one.” I had taken before—a music dictionary, and had confessed to the barista that I didn’t have one to leave. He told me not to worry about it. Each time, I am determined that I will bring one. I have trouble parting with books in general. I owe them three books. Midnight Cowboy is the last one I took. I tucked it into my big purse and got in line to order my mixed spiced and vanilla chai and a pastry. I sat at a small, wooden table with a colored top and began to read. From page one, I was wrapped up in Joe Buck’s world. Later, at home, I read about his inappropriate grandmother and played Dr. Phil a little bit: “Well, that’s why he wants to sell his body! And dress like a cowboy!” The story wasn’t just about sex. But it was about being odd, and it was about being lonely and not fitting in, until you find that one person that gets you and wants to help you, and to whom you can expose your vulnerabilities to, and vice versa. Then, that person dies.
This is why, or how Midnight Cowboy works: it is as if Herlihy held up an arguably ridiculous premise and said, “How will I populate this story arc?” Once the story had its population, those people had to live in a place. Herlihy had to create a cast of characters for two distinct places—Texas and New York. Each group and each individual in the group would have different relationships with the main character. But they would also be people specific to those places. Then, once the story had its supporting characters, his challenge was to create a main character who was so dogged, simple, or perhaps more damaged than we realized, and place him in an unfriendly city where his ideas about the place (New York City) come to die. Readers cannot envision Joe Buck as a success on his own. His plan is terrible. As a dishwasher in small town Texas, the idea that he would dress like a cowboy and win over lonely, rich New York women is rather ridiculous. After reading certain magazines, Joe has the idea that all he has to do is show up in New York and the women would fall all over his tall, cowboy attire-clad frame. He has an idea that a person can’t be lonely or even really alone in a city with so many people. Even when Joe Buck made contact with his chosen audience, he wasn’t always as financially successful as he would have liked to have been. He didn’t conquer New York City. In fact, he was getting nowhere. Without Rizzo’s help, Joe Buck might have been a casualty or even more of a failure, or both.
The friendship between Joe Buck and Rizzo (sometimes called “Ratso” by people who do not like him; he hates the name), is a study in opposites. Where Joe Buck is tall, blond, and toothy, with a penchant for flashy clothes, Rizzo is small, dark, with a mouth full of rotting teeth and a brain full of put downs. His clothes are rags topped by a dirty coat. Rizzo has a limp; Joe Buck strides easily. Yet, one of them cannot live without each other, once they meet. And that is the beauty that guides the story. That is what makes the ending so sad.
If audiences only see the movie, they might miss the elements that make us so similar to Joe Buck and Rizzo. Reading Midnight Cowboy forces readers to take in the minute details that create both the characters of Joe Buck and Rizzo, and the New York world (and its populace) that is hostile to them. In the movie, it is sometimes easy to get caught up in the more salacious details such as the movie theater scene, or the freezing apartment scene, or even the pleased socialite scene (wherein Joe Buck plays a popular word game with the woman, and his suspected lack of literacy is revealed, but no matter; they are here for sex). In the book, Herlihy’s description of Joe, Rizzo, and the motley cast of characters they encounter are built one word at a time. Readers can go back to earlier passages; they can linger over particularly touching or raw details; or the ideas about people and their desire to connect with each other that are created deftly and clearly.