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 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.

Before this point, however, an inordinate amount of space is devoted to guns, with each unit lovingly described and identified thereafter by caliber, as is the custom in men’s action novels of the “Destroyer” variety. Burroughs generally has a rather juvenile fascination with the paraphernalia of warfare and espionage. This can be partially explained by his background.

He was born into comfortable circumstances. His grandfather had invented the oil-filled cylinder and perforated piston that drove the adding machine that came to bear his name, although the assets of the Burroughs Company had mostly passed out of his family’s hands by the time William reached his majority. He was a sickly child, and was removed for his health to the Los Alamos Ranch School, in New Mexico, future home of the atom bomb. There he reluctantly learned to ride and enthusiastically learned to shoot. Back in St. Louis, he made some timid attempts at burglary, all the while consuming large quantities of pulp literature. After college he was tapped for the OSS by Wild Bill Donovan himself, although his application was suppressed by an inimical former housemaster from Harvard. In a 1982 interview, he compared himself to James Angleton, a literary intellectual who did become a high official of the CIA.2

In Howard Brookner’s meticulous and entertaining documentary Burroughs, the subject, after demonstrating his blow-gun and his spring-activated blackjack, wistfully says, “I would like to kill somebody before I die.” At another point, a glassy-eyed and obviously soused Burroughs rants about the “gay state”: “We’ll have an organization with false passports, weapons on arrival…. If anybody says anything against gays, we’ll find ’em, track ’em down, and kill ’em.” Such braggadocio is endemic to American boyishness, and its exemplars can be found in every shopping mall, most of them having shot only beer cans. Burroughs actually did kill somebody, namely his wife, in a drunken William Tell escapade in 1951, and whether this was caused by what he calls “the ugly spirit,” by an unsteady hand, or by his subconscious, will never be known.

But boyishness persists. The Place of Dead Roads must be one of very few novels to be dedicated to its fictional hero (who shares the honor with the unjustly neglected English writer Denton Welch, 1915–1948, whom Burroughs would cast as an incipient wild boy). Kim Carsons is, needless to say, an idealized version of the young Burroughs, and nostalgic glimpses of a St. Louis boyhood recur, as they have, to some degree, in nearly all of Burroughs’s books. In Naked Lunch he makes the point that heroin causes the addict to be controlled entirely by the “front brain,” leading to a flat, uninflected perception of events. When supply is cut off, the “back brain” floods in, and the pains of withdrawal are accompanied by fits of nostalgia.

The contrast between his writing during its preoccupation with addiction and afterward makes an interesting illustration of this. The Place of Dead Roads and the book before it, Cities of the Red Night (originally subtitled A Boy’s Book), are especially sepia-toned. It isn’t just that Kim Carsons is given chunks of Burroughs’s biography for background; the literary model itself harks back. In an effort to make the narrative structures of these two books more linear, and consequently more accessible, Burroughs has somehow been inspired to emulate the language and themes of such pulp masters as Sax Rohmer, H.P. Lovecraft, Max Brand, and The Author of Nick Carter. The boys in both books disport themselves about their stylized adventure-story habitats with exhausting heartiness, working up a big appetite by drilling aliens and bigots, then wolfing down plates of pork and beans. The horrors, meanwhile, are rendered in Lovecraftian adjectives like “unspeakable” and “obscene,” a considerable step down from Burroughs’s formerly businesslike approach to the vile.

Of course, the possibility remains that such affectations are intended as parody. There is, in fact, a conspicuously planted clue to such intentions, in the form of a story which Kim intends to send to Boy’s Life (of all places) featuring Nazi fantasies and extraterrestrial buggery set in a plot vaguely reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard. Nevertheless, Burroughs is both too fond of his boy’s book mannerisms and too inexact in their deployment for the parody to be even slightly convincing.

That the novel’s plot goes nowhere in particular should come as no great surprise. Burroughs’s sense of structure has always been baffling, quite apart from the virtues of plotlessness. Even Junky, his most conventionally linear novel, wanders off into the night, like a guest who goes out for cigarettes and forgets to come back. The Place of Dead Roads is only given shape by the most expeditious of devices, the gunfight scene which frames it at both ends. Otherwise, the action consists of a succession of adventures, shoot-outs, sex scenes, noisome apparitions, and the occasional vignette from the author’s memory, with all the pyrotechnic qualities of an infinitely prolonged bedtime story. Such formlessness can perhaps be attributed to his insistence on a certain automatism on the writer’s part. An awful lot of Burroughs’s devices are derived from surrealism, and when they fail, the result often resembles the numbing generic uniformity of bad surrealist writing. The meanderings and repetitions of Burroughs’s texts, though, are distinguished from the merely sluggish rut-plowing of unmediated writing by their obsessiveness. With their recombinant imagery and interlocking themes, his books all seem to run together into one long novel.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs wrote: “Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out.” Certainly addiction had forever dispelled any such notions for Burroughs himself. He first came in contact with the stuff toward the end of World War II, when someone gave him a case of morphine Syrettes on consignment. He sold them, but kept a few for himself. He began seeking it out and soon found himself addicted. Junk became the center of his life; his struggles to raise money for it, obtain it, and occasionally kick it are documented in his autobiographical novel, Junky, first published in 1953. He underwent several cures of the conventional sort, at the government facility in Lexington, Kentucky, and elsewhere, but to little avail. In 1957 he sought treatment from Dr. John Yerbury Dent, a London physician who was experimenting with apomorphine, a solution of morphine boiled in hydrochloric acid. This concoction supposedly provided the effect of an opiate without being habit-forming, permitting the user to gradually cut back on intake without withdrawal symptoms or the danger of relapses. Burroughs has proselytized for this method, and asserts that its suppression by the FDA is the result of conspiracy.

Addiction gave Burroughs an education in the mechanics of control. As he wrote in Naked Lunch: “Junk is the ideal product…the ultimate merchandise…. The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.” Burroughs learned to look for the strings attached to all forms of exchange, including the use of language. Accordingly, he began collecting strategies to force his writing away from patterns imposed by habit. In Tangier he met Brion Gysin, a British-born painter and poet, who was experimenting with cut-ups, a scrambling device that usually involved quartering a sheet of text and randomly rearranging the pieces. After some fooling around, Burroughs began using this technique with paradoxical deliberateness. In his writing of the 1960s, as exemplified by The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express, the narrative is stretched and twisted by the deployment of chunks of cut-up matter. A paragraph of straight prose will be followed by one of distorted prose in which lumps of the first can be sighted in new permutations.

This kind of echoing disturbingly transforms familiar elements the way dreams do. Cut-ups flaunt the randomness of language by demonstrating that unplanned groupings of words can prove at least as expressive as purposely fashioned phrases. Of course, Burroughs used cut-ups very calculatingly, choosing only one or two lines from a cut-up page, reducing the brew to its essentials. “Anything they can do you can do better,” he wrote in The Job. “Pick up The Concise Oxford Dictionary mix your own linguistic virus concentrates fire burn and cauldron bubble mix it black and mix it strong folks hereabouts have done you wrong return confluently the complement: e.”

Burroughs is not merely being fanciful in characterizing language as a “virus.” His knowledge of its malign uses has led him to a deterministic idea of the hegemony of the word. For him language determines event. He resembles the turn-of-the-century Parisian clochard-philosopher Jean-Pierre Brisset, who imagined a Francophone Adam speaking his first words, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” then turning the sounds around in his mouth until they formed “sexe,” and behold, he had one.3 Burroughs sees language as a code imposed on humans by that authoritarian, dualistic Them, regulating their behavior within narrowly defined limits. The code can be broken only provisionally. As he wrote in Cities of the Red Night, “Changes…can only be effected by alterations in the original. The only thing not prerecorded in a prerecorded universe are the prerecordings themselves. The copies can only repeat themselves word for word. A virus is a copy. You can pretty it up, cut it up, scramble it—it will reassemble in the same form.”

Burroughs might be describing his own writing: no matter how he twists or pulls or shakes it, throws in cut-ups of Conrad or Rimbaud, it continues to sound like the voice of Burroughs, with the same clipped phrases and the same obsessions. Indeed, his voice is so prerecorded that it is frequently hard to tell apart the composed and the manipulated sections of his work. The Place of Dead Roads uses scarcely any cut-ups, per se, but seems instead a large-scale cut-up of his sensibility, the pieces falling apparently at random.

Burroughs’s fixations have led him down the garden path on numerous occasions. He flirted with Scientology, enthralled with its promised vacuuming of infantile traumas and acquired prejudices, until he found it to be precisely the kind of malign authoritarian system he sought to escape.4 His notion of the power of language has led him to suggest that Bolivar’s ultimate failure in liberating South America from oppression lay in his retention of Spanish; Chinese, he thinks, would have freed the masses psychologically.5 His most questionable fancy, though, derives from the odd fact that his experiments with chance have only reinforced his determinism. On the subject of coincidence, Burroughs invariably sounds like a devotee of dowsing or UFOs. He insists that cut-ups can predict the future. In “Handkerchief Masks,” a tape experiment from the early 1960s, radio newscasts from different stations are randomly interwoven. Thus, when an item about President Johnson suddenly cuts to “appeared before a grand jury on perjury charges,” the accident can be retrospectively claimed as prophetic of Watergate.6 A newspaper account of a fire with twenty-three casualties juxtaposed with mention of the suicide of a male aged twenty-three can be taken as evidence of larger designs, but when both are contrasted with October 23, 1935, the date when Dutch Schultz was gunned down, it is difficult to distinguish between paranoia and literary affectation.7

Burroughs clearly wants his readers to discard such distinctions, just as he long ago stopped distinguishing between his life and his work. His persona is so entirely sui generis that one cannot imagine his having the writer’s usual difficult beginnings. The recently published Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953–1957, shows Burroughs in a completely new light. His voice in these is not only surprisingly personal, but so touchingly unsure that it is necessary to remind oneself that he wrote them between the ages of thirty-nine and forty-three. He was then living in Tangier on an allowance supplied by his parents, not long after the shooting of his wife and his adventures in South America. He was trying to kick heroin, again and again, in desultory fashion. When not scouring drugstores for substitutes, or chasing boys and worrying about their fidelity, he was attempting to establish himself as a writer. He had already written Junky, quickly and for money, and was casting about for a voice, not realizing that he already possessed one.

The letters are full of feeble promises and tentative plans: “I have started writing a Chandler-style straight action story about some super Heroin you can get a habit on one shot with it or something similar—I’m not even sure yet.” “I am writing an article on Tanger. Perhaps New Yorker: ‘Letter from Tanger.”‘ “I am planning to write, when I get the time, a short book just on Yage like Huxley’s peyote book. Positively no school-boy smut.” Meanwhile, he is developing “routines,” solely for the amusement of his correspondents, and in the four-year course of the exchange they gradually turn into Naked Lunch. The shift in both attitude and style is painful and unmistakable. The book operates like time-lapse photography; it is a rare instance of a writer’s development made visible in a brief text.

Naked Lunch, the book he eventually produced, is still his best. None of his later writings can match its imaginative power, its acute observations, or its astringent humor. It remains a milestone of a kind, going further than any book in plumbing the untouchable aspects of American life at a time when defiance had become a kind of competition among writers. For a while it seemed as though it would be the last book to be banned for obscenity—it was not, in fact, cleared for sale in Massachusetts until 1966, three years after Mary McCarthy’s enthusiastic review was published in the first issue of this paper. Now that the most innocuous antiques are being dragged from the shelves in jerkwater school districts, it seems just as formidable as it did then. Naked Lunch has never been successfully imitated, and the competition is mostly forgotten. It could be said that Burroughs had shot his wad with this volume, since few of his later themes are not somewhere present within it, and originally done up in a fashion that is more readable and convincing.

By sheer force of repetition, however, accompanied by shrewd press-agentry, he has constructed an edifice, which includes the invention of a self that is as much a work of art as any of his books. The figure that Burroughs cuts is an almost folkloric type, a sort of Pecos Bill of America’s underside. Just as intellectual vagrants Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim respectively incarnated the bum who is writing the history of the universe and the perpetually mendicant garret poet, Burroughs has forever stamped a stereotype with his own personality. He is the dangerous figure in a worn business outfit who haunts schoolyards and mutters vague fragments about planetary conspiracy. That he is being filmed, photographed, and interviewed incessantly in his decline will someday provide the proof that he actually existed, not just as the author, but as his own creation.

This Issue

May 10, 1984