Midnight Cowboy | 30-second book review

A neon-lit cafe on the corner of a snow-lit city street at night.

Joe Buck dreams of hustling women for fast cash. New York City has other ideas.

“Women,” Joe said. “Eastern women. They got Eastern women back there, and they going to pay for it, too.”

What Joe Buck thinks women will pay for is sex – and he sees himself as the ultimate consumer product.

After his grandmother dies, workshy Joe heads for New York to seek his fortune.

His burgeoning sexuality combined with juvenile naivety lead to humorous flights of fantastical thinking. He daydreams that rich women will fawn over and fall into bed with him:

“There was no time for undressing. He took her immediately. The butler handed him a check, signed in a florid hand, on which the amount had been left blank for him to fill in as he chose.”

But what makes Joe such an appealing character early on becomes a liability in the big city. He has no street smarts nor business sense, making him an easy target for scammers.

Homeless, he squats in a condemned building with Ratso Rizzo, a guy who first scams him then pimps him out.

They make a memorable pair – both reaching out for love and friendship – but ultimately are doomed, the Romeo and Juliet of homo-platonic fiction.

New York of the 1960s, while grimly colourful, is strangely soulless. As for the tragi-comic figure of Joe Buck, he’s a working-class Holden Caulfield with a darker soul.

Touching on themes of sexuality, homosexuality, isolation and hardship, Midnight Cowboy is a Buwkowski-like tale of the city, where many struggle, and not everyone survives.

Midnight Cowboy, by James Leo Herlihy

Quoted edition published by Wolfpack publishing, 2020

What to read or watch next
  • Midnight Cowboy (1969 film adaptation starring Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman)
  • Post Office, and other works by Charles Bukowski (down-and-out in the city)
  • Books about not fitting in
  • The Catcher in the Rye (coming of age from a male perspective)
  • Goodbye to Berlin (the seedier, hidden underbelly of city life)
  • The works of Paul Zindel (young adult fiction with similar themes, scenarios and era)

Picture credit: Mateusz Majewski