Oct 2, 2014

Book Looks: The Antagonist Of Self & Setting In 'Midnight Cowboy'

From synopsis alone, there wasn't any way I could relate or even care about the tale of a naïve guy in the 1960s with rose-colored dreams of taking New York City by storm as a male prostitute. Those aren't shoes I walk in or have even come close to walking by. Yet, James Leo Herlihy makes me walk in them, makes me become involved, as after being sucked into Joe Buck’s lonely, seedy, and reckless world, meeting the depressing little lump that is Rico "Ratso" Rizzo, thrown about the underworld of New York's shivering and starving nights, and then being released from all of that confusion and soil with a hard shove out the door by novel’s end --- I was nodding my head. I got it. I understood. I formed compassion, and in a lot of ways, I related. I got it all completely and now I’m left feeling numb and consumed by this classic tale of friendship, hard lessons, and isolation.

Midnight Cowboy is an extremely H-E-A-V-Y story. 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. All I knew of the film was that it won a Best Picture Oscar, that it starred Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and from the iconic film poster, they made them look shaaady as all get out.

My vagueness on the story and the movie helped me to enjoy being shaken out of my plush environment. I'll admit this isn't the type of book that I would immediately pick up, and I wasn't sure about it when I began reading, but within a few pages I became charmed at how Herlihy has written what is the ultimate tome of isolation, focusing chillingly on the irony of being surrounded by people and still feeling as insignificant as possible as he takes us through every cracked sidewalk step into a man's reluctant and brutal coming-of-age.

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. Placing us into the thought process of such a simpleton and making it easy for us to understand and even sympathize also shows Herlihy's talent with words as it's difficult to root and sympathize for Joe Buck and even find empathy for the sniveling and pathetic Ratso. I wouldn't say Joe Buck is 'stupid', he’s more so 'ignorant' or 'naïve' as he lives in a fantasy world of child-like optimism. He would be since he grew up lacking a solid father and mother figure. His childhood guardian was an irresponsible grandmother, and her conclave of rotating boyfriends, not to mention 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. Ratso had been living, was living this world that Joe Buck saw as a playground of opportunity, and Joe Buck, bless his heart, he is just so eager to belong and be integrated into something after being neglected and abused all his life that he doesn't realize that he has fallen into friend's private hell, and soon side-by-side the hell is shared.

Yet oddly at the core of this personal hell is a friendship as Joe and Ratso fall into rhythm with each other. Ratso begins as an opportunist, eager to exploit Joe in the beginning, till something settles in him to view him as a companion, and he plays tour guide as he peels back the glitter of NYC to uncover a decaying urban jungle. At first it's prideful for the both of them to rebel out the outskirts of the system, of the 9-to-5 status quo of society, but that disregard can only last for so long as the brutal winter settles and food and money are hard to covet. As much as their poverty and aimlessness is depressing to unfold, what gets me is even as opposite and lopsided as they are their bond is probably the only close friendship that these two have ever had. Their reliance on each other, while not conventional, is valid based on how they come to care and protect one another over the course of the story. Sadly, their friendship can could only be sustained in the confides of NYC's icy smog, as when the two breakout to travel to Ratso's often-daydreamed safe haven of Florida, tragedy strikes, and their friendship disintegrates.

Another thing that fascinated me is that there isn't really a villain/antagonist in this story, at least in human form. 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.

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969)
I've read my share of writing books and they emphasize a lot about there being some sort of "bad guy" in a story that screws with your protagonist and cackles every once in awhile. If you don't have this finger-rubbing deviant your story fails. Midnight Cowboy made me realize that that concept, while sound for most stories, doesn't work for others, especially when you have such layered characters like Joe and Ratso.

Also sometimes one's enemy is not a person or even a person who is tangible. 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. Also New York City itself can be viewed as the monster that plagues our main and secondary characters. The city makes them act this way, makes them scrimp and scrape and live on the fringes and on hinges. Herlihy paints a New York that is unforgiving, malicious, and has its occupants huddling in doorways, stealing, lying, tossing morals and pride aside. Doing just about any and everything to survive, to be acknowledged, and it's all too real.

I have come to understand that New York City from the late 1950s into the late 1980s wasn't the swankiest, commercialized glittering place we see today. All that's shown in the prose of this book is now a veil over its past. Some fantastic movies came out in the 1970s and early 1980s to show NYC as a wicked place. At the moment, Taxi Driver and The Warriors come to mind as quintessential squalid city fables, and Midnight Cowboy shows the same murky, vicious, and soul crushing NYC as these films did. The movie (which I finally got around to seeing and ended up loving too) especially shows that aspect well. When the characters became dirty, cold, and hungry, I became so as well, most notably through Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Ratso, as with every cough and shudder, I felt it, and it was unsettling. (Side note: 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 alone).

Another villain is actually Joe Buck himself. He's his own worst enemy as his nativity just does him in at every turn, and as much as he tries to (naively) make a 'clean, honest' break into the world of prostitution, by book's end he has become soiled and even more directionless, the hope he harbored in the beginning smashed to bits. The city itself chewed and spit him out, sure, but Buck's blissful ignorance to a lifestyle of sex work, and complete lack of common sense led him down some dark canals, mentally and physically, that leads him to the question mark of his possibly doom-filled future. One can imagine he might overcome his winter in NYC, as he is now the wiser, but there is really no telling considering he has become hardened by all that he has encountered. When he winds up in the harsh light of Florida by book's end, he is still as confused and directionless as he was before, even more so, but as a possible blessing he's now self-aware of that. Joe Buck has a thin chance to overcome, but it's a sliver.

We need to read fiction to face reality. We need to read it to see what's before us everyday in a new light. We need to read it see what we miss or choose to turn a blind eye towards in order to comprehend it better, to overcome, and be cautious of it. Midnight Cowboy, while fictionalized, taps on the shoulders of reality, of the reality of isolation and loneliness, as it forces you to walk in the stench and pain of Joe Buck's cowboy boots in order to see and think differently about the people you may pass by on the street, and about how you and your surroundings can wind up being your own worst enemies.

Some parts of this review were edited and extended. It was originally posted on Goodreads.

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