The Invisible Man

The Place of Dead Roads

by William S. Burroughs
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 306 pp., $15.95

Naked Lunch: The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition

by William S. Burroughs
Grove Press, 256 pp., $17.95

Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953–1957

by William S. Burroughs
Full Court Press, 203 pp., $7.95 (paper)


a film directed by Howard Brookner

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.