Thursday, August 02, 2007

William S. Burroughs: The Junky, They Called Him

I GO THROUGH PHASES in which I crawl into one author's books, just burrow through them to the exclusion of all else. Usual culprits include the works of Henry Rollins, Hunter S. Thompson, and the man who died 10 years ago today, William S. Burroughs. Ever since then, I occasionally need to hear a polyglot babble echoing through the shadowed sinuses of Tangier, feel the baleful gaze of Doctor Benway as he leers across an incriminating file on his desk, or walk the windy avenues of Manhattan in search of a junk connection, aching — vicariously, I assure you — to satiate the Algebra of Need.

Burroughs initially denied his destiny as a writer, despite some fitful early efforts and the insistence of Jack Kerouac. Sliding through life as (among other things) an exterminator, dope peddler, lush roller, and gentleman farmer of marijuana, Burrough's fate eventually caught up with him in the form of a deadly game of William Tell with his speed-freak wife, Joan Vollmer. An "Ugly Spirit" descended upon Burroughs, as he described it, and the only way to be free of it was to "write [my] way out."

Even before confronting the Ugly Spirit, he had been crafting his wryly comical routines for years with his experiences, and verbally, with his early associates and future Beat legends, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Once he began writing in earnest, out poured his experiences with the needle into Junky. From the furtive silence of a repressed era, his homosexual longings found light in Queer, even if the book itself could not be published for decades. And from the post-Hiroshima reality of the Nazi control system being overthrown in favor of East–West national security paranoia and literary censorship, from the dawning age of faceless computers and the advertising shuck replacing the old carny con, from Burroughs's flirtations with medical school, psychiatry, and extermination of sinister arthropods in countless Chicago tenements, rose his signature literary nightmare, Naked Lunch.

I love Burroughs's prose because it seems to have infinite space within it. Neuromancer, American Tabloid, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas evoke this feeing in me . . . a desire to crawl into the book and explore, with the sense that I will indeed find something around the corners. This is odd in the case of Burroughs's' work, as Junky is a spare, direct narrative, and Naked Lunch seems to take place only occasionally in our familiar world. He frames his work with just enough supports, so that the shocking or humorous images in the rooms he has built have all the more impact. And you want to look in the attic once he has done so. But always, the end of the book or story boots you out the door.

When Burroughs himself exited, as all of must, it has been written that many were surprised he was still alive. Yet there he was, back in the genteel Midwest he had spent so long eliminating from his system, with his paintings and guns and the words still flowing. In his old age, Burroughs took on an androgynous beauty, only falling fully into the male category when he spoke in his sly, croaking drawl, by turns wising up the marks with his hard-won wisdom and admitting his foolishness in a world where nobody, ultimately, beats the Mark Inside. I had a dream several months ago in which I was in his house in Lawrence, Kansas, sitting beside him on a couch while he read from his diary. His voice and manner were so comfortable that I closed my eyes and rested my head on his ancient shoulder. Don't worry, the next scene in the dream didn't involve a session with the original Steely Dan. I just let his words carry me into one of those infinite spaces of his.

I have Naked Lunch in my workbag for tomorrow. I may just take it to bed as my nighttime reading, and if I wake up with white hair or a centipede body, so be it. I'll ring up Doc Benway for instructions.

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