For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been chipping away at “Midnight Cowboy” by James Leo Herlihy. This is the novel that the famous movie was based on, and although I cannot help but picture a young, cocky, blonde Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the Buck from the book beats the movie Joe handily – to a fictiony pulp.
This is not to say I don’t like the movie. I love the movie. The movie is beautiful to me. But although it was the novel that led to the film adaptation, in a weird inverted loop-around, it was the film that got me interested in the novel.
On the silver screen, Joe Buck is kind of surface-sincere-sweet and demonstratively himself, once you’ve read two dense pages of Joe’s internal deliberations on whether or not he’s being noticed in the Universe (or if he’s even worth noticing), the book version of Joe seems novel indeed, and the onscreen version seems as fleeting as a film frame.
In his novel, Herlihy gives Joe Buck a depth of feeling and an existential sincerity that completely enoble him. Joe searches his blurry memories and his daily street life for answers to the question of who he is. The Cowboy is Joe’s conscously-adopted swaggering persona – the outward-facing role – that he, the lost and wayward son, has adopted in response to a hard, uncaring, and confusing world. Midnight is the dark confusion in which he sits, asking himself and the Universe his deepest, most difficult questions.
He’s lost so much in his young life: his innocence, his family, his security and identity, and his place in the world. The novel is about Joe’s world, his estrangement from it, his attempts to reconnect to it, and how he claws his way back into the light of hope by ditching the Cowboy in him. Texas and New York are the gauntlets that Joe must run in order to pass through his trials.
Finding Rizzo gives Joe an unlikely ally, but even more, it gives Joe someone to take care of. As a wannabe hustler, Joe only really ever held alegiance to money and to the sexual power he could exercise to get it. However, throughout all his nasty adventures in dark movie theatres, hotel rooms, and up on rooftops, Joe always felt sympathy for those others who were suffering. He had compassion within him, perhaps waiting to be drawn out from under the embroidered shirt and suede jacket. So, the cowboy finally ended up trusting Rizzo, and became a friend and confidante to him. Joe Buck became a caregiver to somebody smaller and weaker than himself. He evolvd from a man-child to a parental figure, in his own way.
Herlihy uses plain language and essential phrases to weave together an elaborate world of internal confusion, torment, and compassion. Through Joe Buck, he questions the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the nature of family and friendship. In the movie version, Joe is a bit of a shallow but well-intentioned hayseed, and it is Voight’s personality that illustrates the sweet soul of Joe Buck onscreen. In the novel, we dive head-long into the emotional quagmire and philosophical dillemmas of a sensitive, yet illiterate young man who’s desperate to ask the big questions about his life without really having the tools to articulate them.
The cold morning air shocked Ernest John’s cheeks as he followed his grandfather down the five wooden steps from the back porch. The chickadees stopped arguing and scattered away, creating a rare moment with no sound at all. Ernest John was the namesake of his grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, whose nickname in the family was “Poppy”. To Poppy’s slight amusement and disappointment, six year old Ernest John had recently stood on the fireplace hearth in the livingroom and declared that he preferred to be called John, instead of Ernest.
Poppy stopped before reaching the white gate at the sidewalk and waited, watching John poke along the narrow path with his head down. “C’mon. Let’s go son.” Poppy always called him son instead of grandson, and John liked it. It made him feel special. “Okay” John agreed, trotting a few steps to return his small, freezing hand into the security of Poppy’s large, gloved, waiting one.
Kitty-corner across the street from Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland stood the bus stop sign where they caught the Lake Hill bus everyday. It took Poppy downtown to his Manager job at the Yates Hotel, and took John closer to his private school in Esquimalt.
After about five minutes of knocking his knees together, feeling the frigid morning air creep uncomfortably up into his private school short pants, John saw the bus coming up the street. It had felt like forever.
The driver greeted them with a familiar smile and a deep, gravelly “Hello, Mr. Clarke”. John smiled at the driver and got a quick wink in return. Poppy knew everyone on their route. Victoria was a city, but in 1972 it wasn’t too big for familiarity and good morning greetings.
Shuffling towards the back of the bus, they passed a girl sitting with her big brother. She was blonde, tied back in pigtails, with a round face and a sour expression. The girl recognized John and stuck out her tongue. He didn’t understand the reaction and tried to ignore it.
Poppy had noticed the little exchange. As they sat down, he leaned over and whispered “What was that all about?”
John didn’t want to say, but the girl had stuck her tongue out at him a few times before, and then pouted when he didn’t respond. He pictured the girl sitting in her desk in their little classroom, two rows in front of him and one row to the right. He pictured how she always loved to put her hand up first and answer the Teacher. She thought she was cute and maybe she was. Maybe he hated her, he thought. He wasn’t sure how he felt, and finally just shrugged. “That’s Tracey,” he told Poppy. “She goes to my school.”
Poppy watched her squirm and squabble with the boy next to her, and looked down at his grandson, who seemed so passive and distant most of the time, but especially now. “Hm.”
Poppy sat back and closed his eyes, remembering his wife Edna, and how she used to make the boy his oatmeal. She’d only been gone for a few months, and Ernest sat as straight-backed as he could in spite of how lost he really felt without her. At seventy-four, he was long-past retirement age, but needed the money, and anyway, what else could he do? The job was practically the only thing he had left to call himself a father and a provider.
After a few minutes, he heard John singing quietly to himself, and listened to his grandson’s small soprano singing voice ringing quietly until they got off by the Yates Hotel. It was a pure, high-pitched echo of the voice that John’s mother Angela had once had. Angela, who had been the apple of his eye. Angela, who at 41 now spent most of her time sleeping and drinking, having surrendered her joys and creativity to manic-depression and alcoholism. Ernest Huntley didn’t know if he could truly ever help his daughter, but he knew that he could help her six year-old son and her four year-old daughter. He pictured John and little Kimberley laying on the living-room carpet, talking and colouring together peacefully, and he smiled to himself. They were good kids with an uncertain future.
Later, as they stood on the pavement waiting for the second bus which would take John to the front door of his school, Poppy straightened John’s cap and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The second bus pulled up and the large Irish driver greeted Poppy and waved John aboard.
“Have a good day and be a good boy,” Poppy said. He really meant for John to have a happy day and to remember that he was already a good boy. John looked up into Poppy’s blue-grey eyes and loved him, and tried to smile. He hated going to school. He climbed aboard the bus and waved from his seat, and worked up a fake smile for his grandfather.
Poppy would never tell his grandson how he’d been shipped over to Canada from West Sussex in 1910 at the age of twelve, “transferred to another family” in Canada” under an English Home-Child program which lessened the burden on large poor English families by paying them to ship their youngsters overseas to work in other people’s farms and gardens. The lad waving back to him was too young to understand how some families just unravelled from the outside-in, or in the case of John’s mother, from the inside-out. Hopefully, John would never need to know.
All that mattered was the family that he had today, and the bus which would come for them again tomorrow morning.
Today, I’ve been listening to the podcast Serial, that now-famous online audio series that’s garnered record numbers of listeners. It has been both praised and reviled in the press.
In recent years, I think that podcasts have taken a back seat to other online media, particularly social media and especially online video. Some reviewers have claimed that Serial has raised the profile of podcasts, attracting loads of new listeners to what was considered an old medium. You know, like from ten years ago, when people still thought iPods were revolutionary.
I’ve enjoyed listening to Serial, but I’ve also found it to be a bit less than formal. It feels unstructured, running along like a continuous conversation that we’re overhearing or listening to from the sidelines. Maybe it’s too conversational in format?
It feels like an editorial piece where the author’s points of view, questions or self-doubts become a major aspect in the story, competing with whatever objectiveness there may be in the story. Despite my concerns, find myself still listening to it.
The thing is, I’ve loved listening to old-time radio programmes, especially comedies, and detective dramas. The dramas especially tend to put you in the head of the main character, where their thoughts and speech as rendered as equally important. It was first-person, in the “Raymond Chandler” sense.
After listening to the first few episodes of Serial, I found it difficult to stay engaged with the story. There were so many players, people who were involved, or who knew people who were involved, or who might have seen something. I found myself feeling a bit bored at times, drifting off mentally. I began playing episodes while I did other things, picking up the important points, and hoping the rest would just sink in. Maybe all my years of surfing the web for quick answers have destroyed my ability to absorb and enjoy long-form narrative. I’m ready to accept that possibility.
It’s not presented in a sensationalized style at all, but from episode to episode, it’s compelling enough to keep me listening, and like the chapters in a good detective novel, ending with a dangling question – a challenge to the audience – which sets up new mysteries and proposes new possible answers.
I think that many people like to play detective, to listen in on lurid details, gossip-style, and to speculate on all the pieces of a vast puzzle. This format is not unlike the lurid “true crime” detective magazines that you can still see on some magazine racks, and all over the web.
Serial also has a few other marketing and publishing characteristics that have greatly accelerated its popularity: it’s freely available at serialpodcast.org, and being online, it’s easily republished via social media.
Anyway, check it out for yourself, and listen to the first of the 12 episodes:
I bought Naked Lunch back in 1997, I think. I never could get into it past the Introduction sections. I really liked William S. Burroughs’ opinions on addiction and the junkie mindset. His opinions sounded so authoritative, with a mixture of almost clinical objectivity (which drugs he’d become addicted to, how much and how often . . . → Read More: William S. Burroughs: The terrible truth-telling Orifice.
To finish Week 3 of the MOOC, “The Future of Storytelling”, my creative task is to publish a detailed profile of an original character. I must also provide a bit of “evidence” – some artifacts – of my character’s online presence.
This is an exercise in Transmedia – creating fiction across multiple media simultaneously – . . . → Read More: Creating a Character Profile for Mike Coffey: #StoryMOOC Week 3
My hopes for an amazing, uplifting Superman movie have been sucker-punched by “Man of Steel”.
It’s really disappointing to say that too, because I’ve considered myself a Superman fan ever since the 1978 Christopher Reeves movie. I think I was hoping for a kind of mythical, spiritual reboot from this new movie franchise. (Is that . . . → Read More: Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.
Father’s Day has come again, and I’ve been thinking of you. I have a little photo of you on my dresser, from when I was a little guy, when you were working on the Hollic’s farm that summer. I think it’s my favourite photo of you because you look suntanned and happy.
Anyway, . . . → Read More: Dear Dad
What does it mean when the major online retailer of books and movies is getting into the content production business? It’s more industry convergence that proves that “content is king”, even when it’s crowdsourced…
I think that Amazon is doing a kind of Zeroes2Heroes approach to getting original content, but on a bigger, Amazon scale: . . . → Read More: Amazon Studios & Bootstrapping Original Content
Other than the occasional blog post, I haven’t written anything of consequence, personally, in close to a year. So goes my on-again-off-again relationship with creative writing.
The stopper (or slower-downer) for me this time has been a preoccupation with money (re: earning more) and enduring a series of extensive repairs and renovations to our condo.
. . . → Read More: Getting closer to writing again…
My headphones are in. Robert Plant wails and Jimmy Page brings layer after layer of metal blues and funk. My heart has been uninspired to do anything creative for weeks. Fuck my own voice, I seem to have been murmuring to myself. Just work and get paid. Get it done, and climb out of that . . . → Read More: Stream of conscious delight