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City of Glass Paul Auster & Midnight Cowboy James L

City of Glass Paul Auster & Midnight Cowboy James Leo Herlihy

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

“[T]he tremendous claustrophobia of the city is designed to hide what the city really does, which is to divorce us from a sense of reality and to divorce us from each other.”(James Baldwin) Both Paul Auster’s City of Glass and James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy consider the impact that

New York City can have upon its inhabitants. However, neither text supports the idea that claustrophobia is a design tool that has been carefully incorporated by town planners to hide what the city really does, as if it is a conspiracy. It may be that claustrophobic conditions are a factor in the effects of city life that

Baldwin put forwards in his argument; but neither text goes as far as to say it is a deliberate cloaking device. Both texts do however dwell on the living conditions and environment of the

New York City dweller: apartments, X-flats, alleys and streets, which by their nature may be claustrophobic for some. The texts, in different ways, support the idea that “cities divorce us from a sense of reality and…each other.” (

These ideas: loss of identity, isolation, environment and the perception of reality will be critically considered in the two texts under consideration. Auster has as his main character a private investigator who experiences a metamorphosis as a consequence of a misdialled telephone number, the action in the novel begins and ends in

New York. Herlihy on the other hand uses the cliché of a young character leaving home to find a better life in the city, Gelfant (1970) describes this as a “portrait study” (Gelfant 1970 11). Herlihy subtly distorts the cliché by making Joe Buck leave Houston, which is of course a city, to journey across America to exercise his sexual prowess in

New York and make money from doing so. In this way the naiveté, that is part of the clichéd country boy being tricked and conned in the city, is exchanged for the naiveté of a cowboy, which is of course symbolic of the masculinity and power of American men. He uses the iconography of the Wild West cowboy to reveal the power of New York to change the identity of Joe Buck and so transform him from a naïve sexual predator to a male prostitute and eventually to a caring individual who leaves

New York City. Auster uses another icon to achieve a similar impact, that of the private investigator. City of Glass charts the gradual loss of identity that Daniel Quinn experiences in a postmodern city, which Auster represents

New York City as being.

Part one of Midnight Cowboy introduces Joe Buck and provides details, by way of flashback, of his early life and his maturity into a libidinous cowboy. He is brought up by three women: ‘He had been raised by various blondes, one of whom was his real Mother. The first three, who brought him up to the age of seven, were young and pretty’ (Herlihy 1965 12) Joe did not distinguish between the three women “never certain which of them was which.” (Herlihy 1965 12). Joe does not have much in the way of male influence in his early life, and then without warning he is given into the care of Sally Buck, his grandmother, who worked long hours and left him in the care of “various cleaning women.” (Herlihy 1965 14). Sally had many “beaus” who “were ranchers who wore Western hats.” (Herlihy 14 1965). Most of them ignored Joe but one, Woodsy Niles, “taught him how to ride and a little of what Joe came to believe being a man was all about. However, like Sally’s other beaus he left “and Joe was left to pine for him as for a gone away father.” (Herlihy 1965 15). The text is making the point that a boy needs a male role model and if there is not a Father around then a boy will mimic whatever male gains his affection or respect and mimic that person: ‘But surely it was in this time of Woodsy Niles that Joe had begun to see himself as some sort of cowboy’ (Herlihy 1965 15) In contrast we learn nothing of Daniel Quinn’s early life. On the first page the text erroneously dismisses its relevance: ‘As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance.’ (Auster 1985 1). Quinn did have a wife and son who are now both dead. The main protagonists of each text have experienced the loss of family, as has Rico Rizzo. Auster by avoiding any back story concerning Quinn focuses on the effect

New York City has upon his identity. In doing so he examines, with the use of many literary references, the fragility of identity within a postmodern environment and so supports

Baldwin’s thesis. However to do so is in itself a divorce from reality: As Herlihy rightly observes, in the metaphor of the cowboy, childhood experience shapes the person.
Joe Buck’s arrival in New York, from

Houston Texas, dressed as a cowboy demonstrates his naivety. He wanders about the city looking for a woman who will pay him to have sex with her. The first lady he encounters turns him down. The second then demands and receives payment from Joe in return for having sex with him. It is at this point in the text that Joe realizes he needs help:

‘He had to have some advice, that was all there was to it. The thought became an obsession: He wouldn’t do another thing in town until he’d found someone who knew the ropes and could give him some advice.’ (Herlihy 1965 119) As Oliver Twist had the Artful Dodger so Joe eventually meets Rico Rizzo. However, like Quinn, at this point Joe is living in

New York amongst millions of people, who are crowded into high rise flats and offices, but he is completely isolated. The chance meeting that Joe has with Rizzo is a turning point in Joe’s life. The same device is used by Auster in the very first sentence of the text, but the chance meeting is replaced by a chance telephone call: ‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and a voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’(Auster 1985 1)

Quinn writes detective fiction as Max Work, he has no friends and only works for six months of the year. The blurring of identity, that is so fundamental to postmodern literature, begins with the use of a pseudonym to publish his books. This is highlighted when Daniel Quinn pretends to be Paul Auster and believes he is accepting an assignment from the wife of Peter Stillman. This split personality that develops, echoing works like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, is almost the sine qua non of what is now a clichéd postmodern device. This idea is again explored when Quinn goes to Grand Central Station. Quinn arrives early in order “to study the geography of the place,” (Auster 1985 50). The station is crowded and Quinn observes that Stillman could disappear “without much trouble” (Auster 1985 50). It is in this scene at the railway station, in a confined space amongst “the press of oncoming bodies” (Auster 1985 50) that the text explores the claustrophobic effect of crowds upon identity but not the idea that it is concealing a deeper, more malevolent purpose as

Baldwin argues. As the scene continues Quinn recognizes Stillman from an old photograph. However this recognition is then blurred as he spots another man who has a face that “was the exact twin of Stillman’s.” (Auster 1985 56) He cannot be sure he is following the correct person but makes a choice and follows the less affluent appearing Stillman.

He follows him around New York, making a map of his walks and seeks to divine meaning from them; there is a possible reference to The Tower of Babel and the text here is considering the idea of De Carteau (1988) that walking is itself like language and that the way a person walks and where that person walks has meaning, that the city is defined by the places that people go. Auster appears to discard this idea when it transpires that the person in question has a fascination with eggs and is possibly insane. After three meetings with Stillman, at which Quinn is disguised, he discovers that Stillman has disappeared. The power of the city to engulf identity and, as

Baldwin argues, “divorce us from a sense of reality and to divorce us from each other”, is confirmed by Quinn’s symbolic use of disguise to change identities and by the text when Stillman vanishes:

‘Stillman had gone now. The old man had become part of the city. He was a speck, a punctuation mark, a brick in an endless wall of bricks. Quinn could walk through the streets every day for the rest of his life, and still he would not find him. Everything had been reduced to chance, a nightmare of numbers and probabilities. There were no clues, no leads, no moves to be made.’

(Auster 1985 91)

The contrast between the indoor life of Daniel Quinn, as Max Work, and the real life of a detective as Paul Auster is shown here. Detectives solve mysteries; they follow leads, examine clues and interpret events and the actions of people to provide meaning. The failure of Quinn to find any real meaning in the case undermines his sense of identity and reality. From this point in the text his identity begins to unravel. Quinn believed that he “could return to being Quinn whenever he wished” (Auster 1985 62). He stakes out Stillman Junior’s apartment, hiding and sleeping up an alley. He is completely isolated; upon leaving the alley one day, to obtain money, he sees himself in a mirror and does not recognize the reflection:

‘He did not recognize the person he saw there as himself…He tried to remember himself as he had been before, but he found it difficult.’ (Auster 1985 142)

The text is overtly saying that the claustrophobic conditions within which Quinn was living in the alley divorced him from all sense of reality. He has become like the homeless people he had observed in the city:

‘The transformation in his appearance had been so drastic that he could not help but be fascinated by it. He had turned into a bum.’ (Auster 1985 121)

The city and its claustrophobic environment removes all sense of reality and so identity and leads to isolation for Quinn. This is confirmed when upon returning to his apartment he finds it is no longer his home: he has nowhere to return to:

‘He had come to the end of himself. He could feel it now, as though a great truth had finally dawned in him. There was nothing left.’ (Auster 1985 126).

At the end of the novel the narrator states that “It is impossible for me to say where he is now.” (Auster 1985 133)

The self conscious cleverness of Auster’s style in City of

Glass, analyzed in depth by William Lavendar (1993) and exemplified by the many literary references, changing points of view, character, plot and resolution create the atmosphere of a gradual drift away from reality and the blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction. The text is a critique of

New York City as an environment and what is, for Auster, the destructive power a postmodern city has on the psyche. The text is a strong supporting argument for

Baldwin’s hypothesis. But the failure to engage with the fundamentals of childhood experience to shape identity, first advanced by Freud, undermines its power.

In contrast Midnight Cowboy is an examination of both childhood influence and environment. Joe Buck’s identity as a cowboy is derived from Woodsy Niles, not the women who brought him up or the city of

Houston. It is this cowboy identity that unravels when he arrives in

New York City. However it is not Joe Buck who so much loses an identity as develops one. He eventually sheds his cowboy image after he befriends the crippled Rico Rizzo.

Baldwin’s argument is not supported here; Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo know who they are and what they want. They are not divorced from each other but friends and this is a direct result of them both being in

New York City.

The text emphasizes Rizzo’s childhood experiences; he, like Joe Buck, has also lost his Father and family but it is the deterioration in his health that is caused by

New York City. Joe Buck’s identity develops from “Never having had a friendship of his own,” (Herlihy 1965 20) to having a caring friendship with Rizzo. He learns from Rizzo the ways of

New York City, regarding Rizzo as “someone who new the ropes” (Herlihy 1965 119). But as Joe Buck is shown the ropes he recognizes the destructive power of

New York City, and here there is a parallel with City of Glass, if one equates the plight of the homeless with the desperation of the sex trade. After his only success as a gigolo:

‘He saw himself being drained and robbed and swindled in a thousand impossible ways: Every smile cost him some ungodly sum, and every time he nodded in assent to a stranger, a vital substance was extracted from him. If a clock ticked or a breeze blew or a wheel turned in his presence, within range of his senses, it seemed somehow to have stolen his energy to fuel itself.’ (Herlihy, 1965, 203)

Joe realizes, when referring to the clock and wheel, that the city is draining him of life. Rizzo’s health deteriorates to the point at which he may be unable to walk. The unforgiving nature of

New York City and the seeming indifference of the population to his plight are shown by the text when Rizzo tells Joe he is scared and asks him:

‘I mean what do they uh, you know – do with you – if you can’t, uh..Agh, shit!’ (Herlihy, 1965, 209)

The answer is implied as nothing. So Rizzo changes from confident street-smart trickster to being unable to walk at all and scared. On the bus to Florida Joe realizes he cannot live like Rizzo, he must get a job. He confirms his rejection of the cowboy, saying he wants:

‘…a change of shoes!’ Cause I am so sick o’ lookin’ at these goddam boots. I am! I’m gonna throw ‘em in the ocean! Watch me. I want ever’thing new.’ (Herlihy, 1965, 246)

Rizzo’s death, symbolizes the death of

New York City life for Joe and his continued search for meaning.

Baldwin’s argument that the city divorces us from reality and each other is not supported by Midnight Cowboy. Joe learns from Rizzo, who symbolizes New York City, the value of companionship, trust and loyalty; that

New York City can be a hostile environment in which identity and self-belief are “drained”. By contrast Auster in City of

is overtly making the postmodern point that reality and fiction become blurred in a city and it is this that divorced Daniel Quinn/Max Work/Paul Auster from reality and everyone else.



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