Midnight Cowboy (novel)

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For the 1969 film adaptation of this novel, see Midnight Cowboy.

Midnight Cowboy
First edition cover
Author James Leo Herlihy
Country United States
Language English
Published 1965
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Media type Print

Midnight Cowboy is a 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy that chronicles the naïve Texan Joe Buck's odyssey from Texas to New York City, where he plans on realizing his dream of becoming a male prostitute servicing rich women.[1]


The book opens with would-be stud-for-hire Joe Buck getting ready to leave his rural Texas town, recalling the events that set him upon his sordid path.

Joe's mother, who may or may not have been a prostitute, frequently leaves him with a succession of blondes, who may have been his aunts or other whores, until being dropped off to live with his grandmother, Sally Buck, at approximately age nine. During these years Joe becomes sexually attracted to fleshy blondes. Upon Sally’s death while Joe is serving in the army, he loses all sense of direction and security.

Joe loses his virginity during his mid-teens to Annie, a girl who would regularly take on six boys at a time upon a dirty mattress behind a movie theater screen, each waiting patiently in line for his turn. Joe was the first boy she ever enjoyed having sex with, leading to a secret relationship that is squelched when one of Annie’s many jealous “users” alerted her father to his daughter’s activities, after which Annie is swiftly institutionalized.

Joe befriends a local hustler named Perry, a beautiful young man who schools Joe on the art of dominating one’s “tricks” and gets him stoned on marijuana for the first time. It is very clear that Perry wants to have sex with Joe — and that Joe is attracted to Perry but is confused and dishonest with himself as to how to handle that. Perry eventually takes Joe to a Tex-Mex whorehouse. While Joe is having spirited sex with an underage Mexican whore, he realizes that his efforts are being watched; the house’s madame, her fat, gay half-Indian son and Perry are the voyeurs. They try to coax Joe into continuing, but a furious Joe attacks Perry, only to be pulled off of the hustler by the big gay man, at which point Joe is raped by both the fat man and Perry. Joe is so traumatized by the rape that he now no longer cares whom he has sex with, male or female.

Once in New York, Joe proves a failure as a hustler, and soon finds himself barely surviving while serving a mainly gay clientele. Out of desperation, he takes up with Rico "Ratso" Rizzo, a crippled con man and Joe's would-be pimp. The two form a tenuous friendship, but they still fail to make any money. Their dire poverty and Rizzo's rapidly failing health soon force Joe to rob a client in order to afford a bus ticket to Florida, where Rizzo has always dreamed of going. While on the bus to Miami, however, Rizzo dies of pneumonia, leaving Joe completely alone in the world.


In 1969, the novel was made into the movie Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman as Ratso and Jon Voight as Joe.[1] The film, by director John Schlesinger, succeeded commercially and critically, winning three Academy Awards: Academy Award for Best Picture, Academy Award for Best Director and Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).[1] Both Hoffman and Voight received nominations as Academy Award for Best Actor, but lost out to John Wayne in True Grit.

Schlesinger explained the great success of the film as its exploration of loneliness. The movie, which was adapted by screenwriter Waldo Salt, was not entirely faithful to the book, omitting or altering some aspects of Joe's early life.