The Place of Dead Roads
Naked Lunch: The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition
Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 19531957
William Seward Burroughs has been a daunting gray presence in American culture for more than twenty-five years. He has just turned seventy, which means that he has chronologically attained the age he has seemed to be for some time. His grayness is not that of an expansive, grandfatherly Whitman, but a hue partaking of the essences of illness, raw brain cells, invisibility, and the haze of distance. His gaunt features, carefully inconspicuous attire, and Midwestern flat nasal drawl served to conceal him until the undefinable point when they became trademarks. Street boys in Tangier in the 1950s called him “El Hombre Invisible”; nowadays his anonymity has come full circle. In night clubs, in pop magazines, on television his image detaches itself from the surrounding regimental flamboyance, and he appears as the sole survivor of a species: the Last Author.
His influence on a younger generation that is not especially literary—if not as progenitor, then as the mean codger great-uncle everyone tries unsuccessfully to please—is a matter of record. Youth culture since the Sixties has abounded in allusions to his work the way earlier generations drew on Shakespeare or the Bible. In this decade, when daily life is increasingly concerned with circuits, systems, artificial intelligence, and the appropriate intoxication seems to require the gray metallic properties of cocaine and heroin, his work has come to seem especially prophetic. His influence, stature, and longevity have lately been the center of an extensive series of celebratory events—homages like the Nova Convention in New York in 1978 and Final Academy in London in 1982, the issuing of films, records, books, special numbers of magazines, and an unending succession of honorific parties, attended by thousands, at the latest nightclubs.
It is not unusual for an author’s attainment of elder statesmanship to be feted with Festschrifts and symposia. Pop celebrities, meanwhile, try to remain in the public eye by persistent media bombardment—the talk show that precedes the movie that follows the exercise record. That both tendencies have joined in Burroughs’s case is partly owing to the demands of the media in the present day, and partly to an availability either chosen by Burroughs or chosen for him by his satraps. There is, nevertheless, another meaning that accrues around these events. The odor of incense that hovers about such industry is distinctly funeral. The attendants might be lining up for blessings and last words.
In Burroughs’s latest novel, The Place of Dead Roads, there is a recurring image of Ulysses S. Grant breathing his last to his nurse: “It is raining, Anita Huffington.” Beau Brummell and Somerset Maugham appear in the degradation of old age, betrayed by their bodies. While not a major theme of the book, this concern with degeneration is nonetheless significant. Burroughs’s interest in death is nothing new, predicated on the death-in-life of addiction, a fascination with war as a heightened state of engagement, and the pursuit of means of regeneration outside the channels of heterosexual reproduction. He has at various times attempted to plunder, to decode, to befriend, and to demystify death. He once said, “No one owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.” His latest works, though, find him establishing a kind of Valhalla. It would seem that he is seriously preparing for the big sleep.
The Place of Dead Roads begins and ends with a shoot-out in which both gunmen are killed by a third and unseen party. One of them is William Seward Hall, sixty-five, described as a resident of New York who wrote westerns under the name “Kim Carsons.” In the rest of the book, Hall mostly vanishes, ceding to Carsons, who appears in full dream regalia: young, well endowed, and quick on the trigger. He possesses an androgynous monicker, an unsettling disposition, and some anecdotal baggage derived from Burroughs’s own youth (the elderly colonel who opines that he resembles “a sheep-killing dog”). He enjoys a constant randiness that drives both his genitalia and his shooting arm, and he is also a sort of revolutionary, dedicated to making a world that is safe for “Us” and protected against “Them.”
All these traits will be familiar to readers of Burroughs’s books of the last decade or so. Burroughs has erected a body of work that is oddly self-contained and self-referential. What makes this odd is that he so prizes the effect of breaking up the linear structure of his writing by chance devices and other interference from the outside. Since Naked Lunch, his writing has been invaded by overheard conversations, newspaper headlines, and similar kinds of texts that settle like airborne microbes. This kind of deliberate disruption goes back at least to Tristan Tzara; what is peculiar to Burroughs is the way that randomly chosen or observed details survive and mutate through book after book. The new novel, for example, begins on September 17, 1899, an innocuous-sounding date. However, it can be traced back to “Afternoon Ticker Tape,” a work he composed for Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag in 1964, in which he rearranged phrases from The New York Times of September 17, 1899.
Burroughs’s work abounds in such echoes. A Chinese shopkeeper observed by him in South America in 1953, and described in The Yage Letters, makes cameo appearances in at least five books, the context changing every time, but in every one he is sucking on his original toothpick. As isolated events in the books, such briefly glimpsed incidents and details are merely part of the texture, but their recurrence makes them unsettling, causing the reader momentary subliminal hesitation. They deliberately stir the familiar with the uncanny, and plant red herrings for anyone seeking a pattern.
Some repetitions, of course, are more significant than others. Kim Carsons, as an amalgam of trace elements gathered here and there, also represents the successful result of breeding, like a eugenic model. In Burroughs’s early work, as represented by Junky, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express, the protagonist was someone much like Burroughs himself: a hard case, cynical and grimly humorous, with the junkie’s agelessness and the con man’s radar. In The Wild Boys (1971), this figure gradually receded in the face of the tidal wave: teen-aged homosexual guerrillas, precivilized, preliterate, parthenogenetic, like an all-male version of the Primal Horde. Afterward, the aging con man became available only for walk-on parts. The wild boy had triumphed, and he rides through Ah Pook is Here, Port of Saints, Cobble Stone Gardens, Cities of the Red Night, and the present novel. His name is Kim or Audrey, he grew up artistic and unpopular in St. Louis in the 1920s, became adept with firearms, and survives, eternally teen-aged, into the present and future, gathering boys around him for his pleasure and his mission.
In The Place of Dead Roads, as in most of the other later books, his mission is to rid the world of Them. They are alien body-snatchers who seek the subjugation of the human race. They are parasitic, religious, authoritarian; they are responsible for the Industrial Revolution, Prohibition, gun control. “They are more at home occupying women than men. Once they have a woman, they have the male she cohabits with. Women must be regarded as the principal reservoir of the alien virus parasite. Women and religious sons of bitches. Above all, religious women.” Kim proposes to fight the church by encouraging the proliferation of non-Western religions and cults, to fight federal authority by encouraging states’ rights, to fight the Industrial Revolution by replacing quantitative money with “qualitative money,” and, of course, to “give all our attention to experiments designed to produce asexual offspring, to cloning, use of artificial wombs, and transfer operations.”
Burrough’s misogyny is no garden-variety sexism. As he puts it in The Job, “In the words of one of a great misogynist’s plain Mr. Jones, in Conrad’s Victory: ‘Women are a perfect curse.’ I think they were a basic mistake, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.”1 He associates women with the most repressive aspects of Western culture, and he has no sexual need for them; q.e.d., they are superfluous and impedimental. When the tricky problem of reproduction is eventually solved, women will simply be wished away. It is notable that the victims of the numerous bloodbaths that dot the pages of The Place of Dead Roads are all men. Women are not directly attacked; only their agents are. The implication is that women, like the alien Them, are puppeteers whose power is entirely derived from the men they control. Lacking such parasitic force, they will cease to exist.
Burroughs’s politics can be located somewhere in the gray area where far left and far right blur together. It is an idiosyncratic and impatient system, if, in fact, it can be considered a system at all. It would be inadequate to pronounce it “fascist,” although the temptation to do so is strong, in view of his fondness for gun-toting Übermenschen. In his thought are bits and pieces of Nietzsche, Darwin, Max Stirner, Robert Ardrey, as well as the collective residue of Haldeman-Julius’s “Little Blue Books,” Adventure Stories, Guns and Ammo, and Soldier of Fortune. Although he graduated from Harvard, Burroughs has always demonstrated the willful eclecticism of the autodidact. One of the striking qualities of Naked Lunch was its carny’s appraisal of the American scene (“Stop me if you’ve heard this atomic secret”) with its paranoid undertone (“Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducting more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms”). When he imagined an alternative system, it turned out to be small-scale collectivism (“A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state”). He pursued the notion of like-minded individuals banding together in small groups through various stages, ending up with a formula like that portrayed in The Place of Dead Roads.
In The Job, Herr Doktor Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz, Burroughs’s alter ego, describes the concept of My Own Business units: “The MOBs must be camouflaged to survive. For example MOB takes over apartment building from mortgage to janitor, now another next door, now a whole block on the surface perfectly normal stupid folk. Or MOB takes over bank. No beards no long hair just anrdinary small town.” The My Own Business unit in The Place of Dead Roads is called “The Johnson Family,” which, according to a note, was “a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves,” in other words, a signal of honor among yeggs. They do, in fact, take over the small town of St. Albans, Kansas (“Reputation: Moonshiner country. Good place to stay out of and no reason for anyone going there”), running it as a front for their activities. What those activities might be, beyond eliminating Them and engaging in frontier crime to support themselves, is never really detailed, as the novel darts off to England, North Africa, and Venus after page 187 and returns to its original setting and supporting cast only for the last five pages.
Daniel Odier, The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (Grove Press, 1970).↩
Daniel Odier, The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (Grove Press, 1970).↩