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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

The main reason I picked this book out off the second hand book stall is that I'd heard that this had been made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman, an actor I adore after seeing him in Rainman. But does reading this make me actually want to watch Midnight Cowboy? Not especially.

If I'm honest, I was utterly underwhelmed by this novel. Midnight Cowboy follows a young Texan named Joe Buck, who decides that he's going to make his fortune in New York as a gigolo; when he arrives, however, he finds that he isn't really cut out for success as a hustler, quickly becoming homeless and falling in with crippled con-man Ratso Rizzo. The story itself is interesting enough, I can't really complain there. No, my main complaint is the use of Joe as the point-of-view character: simply put, I don't particularly like him. He is a person that I can imagine being irritated with extremely quickly in real life, for various reasons. Firstly, he is very slow; that may be a mean thing to point out, but it is a main character trait of his and it's one that really slowed down the narrative for me, as it meant that nothing actually happens to move him forward. Secondly, his stupidity means that he is manipulated by pretty much everyone that he meets in this narrative. I know that this is meant to show how tough you have to be to survive on the streets, as it were, but when you compare Joe to Ratso it just seems that Joe is incredibly weak-minded and malleable; every decision he makes is either something he drifted into by chance or influenced by smarter or more persuasive people around him, up until the end, where it soon makes no real difference. This leads me on to the third reason that I wasn't fond of Joe as the main protagonist: considering quite how naive and stupid he is, choosing to be a hustler seems like an uncharacteristically cynical/nonsensical move on his part especially considering that he already has a steady job; I would imagine that prostituting yourself would only be an option if 1) you were desperate for money and couldn't get it any other way or 2) you had gotten so jaded that prostitution really didn't seem that big a step. Joe has neither of those excuses, which is incredibly frustrating; he just gets the idea in his head that he can earn loads of money as a hustler without any effort on his part. Basically that one stupid move has essentially removed whatever capability Joe has for being sympathetic, for me at least, as I couldn't help but feel that he kind of deserved a lot of what he got for being an idiot.
There were two things that I think saved it from being a total waste of my time though. The first is Ratso, who I think would have made a much more interesting main character, but then that's my opinion. The idea of him being played by Dustin Hoffman is the one thing that still makes me consider watching the film adaptation. The other thing that saved this book from utter condemnation is the ending, where Joe and Ratso have a few moments of really touching camaraderie, which seemed oddly absent considering that this is supposedly a book with friendship as a main theme.

I may have moaned about this a heck of a lot, but in all honesty this is mainly because I wanted this book to be really good, and there are elements that work well or show a lot of potential, but it's written in such a way that it just left me feeling...well...'meh'. There's no other way I can really put it. 2.5/5

Next review: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

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