I'll admit I was a bit skeptical when I picked up James Leo Herlihy's "Midnight Cowboy." All I knew about it was that it was about a male prostitute and it was made into an X-rated movie (a publicity stunt, really; the movie was initially offered the R rating, and later re-released under the R rating). The back cover copy didn't impress me much: "Here comes Joe Buck, six-foot-one of eager erotic muscle and rarin' for action . . . Midnight cowboy, midnight son of three blonde tarts, white midnight stud. Midnight salesman, selling wares to whores, love to the unlovable, sex to the sexless, eternal youth to the old." I expected a guilty pleasure at best, the sort of thing one simply can't put down as long as it lasts, but which leaves one afterward feeling as if one had been wallowing in a mud pit.
Instead, I found myself wallowing in Herlihy's literary and psychological genius.
Joe Buck is twenty-seven years old when he leaves Houston for New York. His life so far has been nothing special - one abandonment and betrayal after another. Joe has never really felt a sense of connection to anyone, except one of his grandmother's ex-boyfriends, a rancher named Woodsy Niles who imparted to him a fascination with all things Western. The one thing he's got going for him is his body: he's tall, handsome, and great in the sack. In New York, he's been told, most of the men are homosexual, and the women are terribly lonely. They'd pay good money to spend just one night with a real man . . . a man like Joe. Dressed in a swanky cowboy outfit that took him several months to buy on the meager salary from his dishwashing job, Joe gets on the bus, visions of his glamorous future dancing in his head.
We've all heard the stories of the naive young thing trying to make it big in the big city, turning to prostitution just to survive. Joe Buck comes to New York aspiring to a life of prostitution - and yet, like so many other naive young things, Joe is destined to see his dreams smacked down by harsh realities. His first "client" manipulates him into giving HER money. A new acquaintance whom Joe pays to introduce him to an influential pimp delivers him instead to a holy-rolling street preacher and takes off with the cash. Even when Joe reluctantly gives up on his imagined rich-lady clientele and starts trying to catch the shameful glances of cruising males, he can't bring in enough money to keep a roof over his head.
James Leo Herlihy is one of those writers with the rare gift of writing honestly about squalid, sordid things and bringing forth something of wisdom and great beauty. His fluent, lyrical prose does nothing to gloss over reality; instead, it scoops up great big handfuls of reality as only the most solid writing can, and flings them right into the back of your skull. You'll love Joe Buck, and you'll hate him, and you'll cheer him on, and you'll want to slap the stupid out of him, but most of all, for 200 pages, you will become him. You'll feel the fire, the disappointment, the hunger, and - most of all - the alienation. For alienation, loneliness, is Herlihy's great theme here. Everyone in this novel is lonely, an island in a sea of islands, drawn toward each other in desperate need yet never able to touch. There's a good deal of sex in this novel, but it's all selfish, grasping, impersonal; it fails every time to fill the emptiness and instead becomes a weapon, an expenditure of frustration, an amplitude of alienation in a sham of intimacy. Having never quite felt at home among human beings, I've been writing about loneliness, and seeing myself in lonely characters, as far back as I can remember, but I've never read anything like this: "He didn't know what it was based on, but there seemed to be something about him that no one wanted to be kin to. This feeling, always just below the surface, was one of many he did not know how to consider in his mind: the feeling of being a person with no real place in this world, an alien even under the red-white-and-blue of his birth, one who did not belong even in his own neighborhood. He had gone about always, even in these most familiar places of his life, with a slight frown of uneasiness, his head cocked for some clue to the true meaning of the language he heard spoken but which was clearly not his own, walking softly as if unsure of the very ground of this peculiar planet." Indeed, Herlihy has an uncanny ability to articulate the sort of things we don't quite know how to consider in our minds. In Joe Buck, he has come as close to fashioning a living, breathing human being out of paper and ink as any writer ever has.
"Midnight Cowboy" is a short, yet surprisingly hard-hitting novel that isn't for the squeamish or the overly sensitive. It is grueling, it is painful, it is deceptively complex, it is challenging, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. They say it's true that you never really know a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes; well, Herlihy gives us the chance to travel all the way across the country in Joe Buck's cowboy boots - and sure enough, we come away richer for the journey.