[BOOKS] The Extraordinary Life of William S. BurroughsPosted: January 31, 2014
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves.”
Peter Schjeldahl writes: So starts “Naked Lunch,” the touchstone novel by William S. Burroughs. That hardboiled riff, spoken by a junkie on the run, introduces a mélange of “episodes, misfortunes, and adventures,” which, the author said, have “no real plot, no beginning, no end.” It is worth recalling on the occasion of “Call Me Burroughs” (Twelve), a biography by Barry Miles, an English author of books on popular culture, including several on the Beats. “I can feel the heat” sounded a new, jolting note in American letters, like Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” or, for that matter, like T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month.” (Ginsberg was a close friend; Eliot hailed from Burroughs’s home town of St. Louis and his poetry influenced Burroughs’s style.) In Burroughs’s case, that note was the voice of an outlaw revelling in wickedness. It bragged of occult power: “I can feel,” rather than “I feel.” He always wrote in tones of spooky authority—a comic effect, given that most of his characters are, in addition to being gaudily depraved, more or less conspicuously insane.
“Naked Lunch” is less a novel than a grab bag of friskily obscene comedy routines—least forgettably, an operating-room Grand Guignol conducted by an insouciant quack, Dr. Benway. “Well, it’s all in a day’s work,” Benway says, with a sigh, after a patient fails to survive heart massage with a toilet plunger. Some early reviewers spluttered in horror. Charles Poore, in the Times, calmed down just enough to be forthright in his closing line: “I advise avoiding the book.” “Naked Lunch” was five years in the writing and editing, mostly in Tangier, and aided by friends, including Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as “The Naked Lunch” (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with “Lolita,” “The Ginger Man,” and “Sexus.” Its plain green-and-black cover, like the covers of those books, bore the alluring caveat “Not to be sold in U.S.A. or U.K.” (A first edition can be yours, from one online bookseller, for twenty thousand dollars.) The same year, Big Table, a Chicago literary magazine, printed an excerpt, and was barred from the mails by the U.S. Postal Service. Fears of suppression delayed a stateside publication of the book until 1962, when Grove Press brought out an expanded and revised edition. It sold so well that Grove didn’t issue a paperback until 1966.
As late as 1965, however, a Boston court confirmed a local ban, despite testimony from Norman Mailer arguing the book’s literary merit. (Another supporter was Mary McCarthy, who, in the New York Review of Books, praised Burroughs’s “crankish courage” and compared “Naked Lunch” to “a worm that you can chop up into sections each of which wriggles off as an independent worm. Or a nine-lived cat. Or a cancer.”) A year later, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed the ban, on the ground of “redeeming social value,” a wobbly legal standard in censorship cases then and after. Thus anointed, Burroughs’s ragged masterpiece brought to social notice themes of drug use, homosexuality, hyperbolic violence, and anti-authoritarian paranoia. Those temerities and his disarmingly starchy public mien—he was ever the gent, dressed in suits, with patrician manners and a sepulchral, Missouri-bred and foreign-seasoned voice—assured him a celebrity status that is apt to flare anew whenever another cohort of properly disaffected young readers discovers him. The centenary of Burroughs’s birth, on February 5th, promises much organized attention; an excellent documentary by Howard Brookner, “Burroughs: The Movie” (1983), is about to be re-released.
Contrary to Kerouac’s mythmaking portrayal of him—as Old Bull Lee, in “On the Road”—Burroughs was not a wealthy heir, although his parents paid him an allowance until he was fifty. His namesake grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, perfected the adding machine and left his four children blocks of stock in what later became the Burroughs Corporation. His son Mortimer—the father of William and another, older son—sold his remaining share, shortly before the 1929 crash, for two hundred and seventy-six thousand dollars. Mortimer’s wife, born Laura Lee, never ceased to dote on William; Mortimer deferred to her.
Burroughs started writing at the age of eight, imitating adventure and crime stories. He attended a John Dewey-influenced progressive elementary school in St. Louis and played on the banks of the nearby, sewage-polluted River des Peres. Miles quotes him recalling, in a nice example of his gloatingly dire adjectival style, “During the summer months the smell of shit and coal gas permeated the city, bubbling up from the river’s murky depths to cover the oily iridescent surface with miasmal mists.” When Burroughs was fourteen, some chemicals he was tinkering with exploded, severely injuring his hand; treatment for the pain alerted him to the charms of morphine. He then spent two unhappy years at the exclusive Los Alamos Ranch School for boys, in New Mexico, memories of which informed his late novel “The Wild Boys” and other fantasies of all-male societies.
Burroughs was a brilliant student, graduating from Harvard with honors, in English, in 1936. He sojourned often in Europe; in Vienna, he briefly studied medicine and frequented the gay demimonde. He had become aware at puberty of an attraction to boys, and had been so embarrassed by a diary he kept of a futile passion for a fellow-student that he destroyed it and stopped writing anything not school-required for several years. Later, in psychoanalysis, he traced his sexual anxiety to a repressed memory: when he was four years old, his nanny forced him to perform oral sex on her boyfriend. The tumultuous experience of having his first serious boyfriend—in New York, in 1940—triggered what he laconically called a “Van Gogh kick”: he cut off the end joint of his left pinkie.
After a short hitch in the Army, in 1942, Burroughs received a psychiatric discharge…
- Now Reading: Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (idealisticandimpractical.wordpress.com)
- Barry Miles’s Book of a Lifetime: Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs (independent.co.uk)
- Welcome to Interzone: On William S. Burroughs’ Centennial (lareviewofbooks.org)
- Reality didn’t always match the legend of Beat Generation’s leading author (kansascity.com)
- William S Burroughs: the naked photographer (theguardian.com)
- The Long Journey and Many Masks of William S. Burroughs (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Out Loud: William Burroughs’s Spooky Authority (newyorker.com)
- William Burroughs (babylondogs.wordpress.com)
- Choose February’s Reading group: William S Burroughs (theguardian.com)