Some writers have a style that readers must absorb and adopt, and for fans of William Burroughs, the compulsion can be a little hallucinogenic, particularly for vengeful teenagers with a plan to shock their parents. The irony is that Burroughs is probably the most adult American writer of his generation. He commands his own reason, and to read Burroughs is briefly to make contact with a Burroughvian version of oneself. You stagger back, newly paranoid, from a hundred pages of his novel The Soft Machine (1961), wondering about the degree of state control embedded in your life.
That’s how it goes. Having, say, enjoyed the smiles and services of your postman for many a year, you will suddenly, après Burroughs, wonder if the postman is not in fact a strangely mutated cockroach feeding government lies through your mailbox. With a head full of Burroughs you are apt to enter your own Interzone, a place where real things and dreams are indistinguishable. He had magical skills for liquefying reality and bombing your mind.
Everything becomes a little Burroughsy when I try to remember what happened in Lawrence, Kansas, on August 2, 1997. It was the hottest afternoon I had ever experienced. I had come from Lowell, Massachusetts, and I wasn’t alone; there was a BBC director with me, a cameraman, a sound man, and a researcher. We were making a film about Jack Kerouac’s time on Desolation Peak, about the roots of his alcoholism, and we were booked to interview Burroughs at his home in Lawrence. Before getting on the plane, we spoke to him on the telephone and he said that Kerouac’s mother had made him drink. I think it was me who told him to keep it fresh for the cameras.
Cut to Kansas, where the air conditioning was broken at the Hampton Inn and where I was almost relieved to hear the telephone ringing in the early hours. I went down to the lobby to hear from Burroughs’s friend and manager, James Grauerholz, that the novelist had died in the hospital the previous evening at 6:30. Grauerholz suggested that we come the next day and film at the house. “Bill loved the BBC,” he said. The whole thing passed like a Burroughs routine, we were dazed, and I took some flowers the next afternoon to 1927 Learnard Avenue, a red-painted bungalow with four steps up to a porch with a white fence around it.
There was a strange humming. The crew hung back in the car as I walked up to the screen door and peeked through. I thought I saw the singer Patti Smith and I definitely saw the poet John Giorno (the guy asleep in Warhol’s film Sleep). They were sitting in a circle and there were other men including Grauerholz, who soon came to the door. As he opened it, what seemed like a dozen cats shot out of the house. He told me the friends were performing a Buddhist chant to send Burroughs’s spirit up. I declined to join when he asked me, but seeing that the bowls on the porch were empty and licked clean, I said I might feed the cats. “Oh, man,” said Grauerholz, “that is so Zen.”
They were very nice to us, the people. A man called Wayne took us to his own workshop and we had drinks and I noticed the television screen was smashed. Apparently Burroughs had been over quite recently and had shot the television before he left. This conversation led to an early evening session of shooting in the garden, the only time I’ve ever used a gun. Our submersion in the Burroughs ether was so total that after the trip, it took me a while, years in fact, to fully believe that I hadn’t cooked some of it up in the wild dreaminess he promulgated.
Burroughs would have been one hundred this year. He died thinking he’d done very badly with the people he loved: the wife he shot, the mother he didn’t visit, the son who went off the rails and died trying to impress him, as well as the other young men, the lovers, who never made it like him to the end of a quiet street. It seems Burroughs was often lonely. He ate TV dinners and drank liters of cheap vodka and smoked pot, and he kept, Giorno told me, “barrels of methadone in the garage, just in case there’s a nuclear war.” (I think that was a joke.)
This portrait of Burroughs, so carefully painted in Barry Miles’s comprehensive and comprehending biography, is different from the one we usually have of him as perpetual outlaw and countercultural shaman. A good literary biography will show the ways in which personal history both informs and baffles the work, and in meeting that demand Miles provides us with a rather more responsible enigma than we’re used to. “Burroughs did not have a happy life,” Miles writes, and he quotes from the author’s Last Words: “You never loved anybody except your cats, your Ruski and Spooner and Calico…. Mother, Dad, Mort, Billy—I failed them all.” The punk generation, and the Beat Generation before it, would position Burroughs as a kind of peerless, amoral literary gangster, but we now can begin to look at him as a fatal role-player with an upsetting and huge talent. But how do you get to be a man whose conscience is somehow cleansed by the relentless contemplation of filth?
Burroughs was a moralist and the principal source of his moralizing was disgust. In what Mary McCarthy called his crafty Swiftian temperament, he never turned away from what was nauseating in himself and others; he gave it the full comic stare all his life. Yet only one of his books, Naked Lunch, reads terrifically nowadays, showing us, with a kind of phantasmagoric and comical genius, how everyday paranoia, government surveillance, and state control were threatening to alter the metaphysics of the human race, over twenty years before Edward Snowden was born. Kafka, Orwell, and Burroughs were the great twentieth-century obsessives on the issue of “control,” and of the three, it is Burroughs who best appears to have brought the matter into his own personal homeostasis. Mary McCarthy had her say in the inaugural issue of The New York Review:
Control, as Burroughs says, underlining it, can never be a means to anything but more control—like drugs, and the vicious circle of addiction is reenacted, worldwide, with sideshows in the political and “social” sphere—the social sphere has vanished, except in quotation marks, like the historical, for everything has become automatized.
She could have been describing the antics of the National Security Agency today. We are all increasingly automatized and scrutinized now as we go about our activities, but what was it about William Burroughs that made his prescient understanding so completely personal?
Barry Miles is a shadow-catcher, a reality-gleaner, and his biography captures Burroughs’s dark adventures in paragraphs that are well tuned and evocative. He gets it right, capturing the ways in which the author was deviously autobiographical, and he shows us how Burroughs was also configured by what he wrote and how it was received. In childhood, young Billy, from the rich St. Louis family that started the Burroughs Corporation, liked to stand by the town sewer sniffing the coal gas and enjoying the smell of shit being funneled down into the river. He had a dream, writes Miles, “accompanied by the smell of coal gas, that he was standing in front of his mother, leaning over her like a dinosaur and eating her back.”
Quite early in life, Burroughs grew attached to a keening nostalgie de la boue, fueled by tales of burglars, railroad hobos, and junkies. Yet where there was always something rather professional about the self-consciousness of his friend Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs—like that other writer from St. Louis, T.S. Eliot—was always mordantly detached. You feel his love of the low life is not merely a way of refusing the morality of the home crowd, but of seeking another code of life that would allow disgust and self-loathing a higher ordinance.
For a great part of his life he was secretive about his sexual interests, el hombre invisible as the boys in Mexico called him, but for all his avant-garde instincts, he put his past into his books as carefully as Thomas Wolfe did. Not only the later experience, the heaps of drugs and the unguent sex, the jobs—the fumigator in Exterminator!, the deranged private detective in Nova Express—but the slow events of childhood, too. In 1930, Burroughs was enrolled by his parents at the Los Alamos Ranch School. It made a “huge impression on him,” writes Miles, “featuring in many of his utopian fantasies about all-male societies, particularly in The Wild Boys.”
Utopian fantasies on the land where the Bomb was invented? One is tempted to call it a day right there, and say we have located the core of Burroughs’s imagination. But some writers have minds that act as flypaper to their themes: the pests simply fly toward them, and they wriggle there and die and rot into the mind. When a young man Burroughs admired was killed in a car crash, the future author took the blow personally and said nothing. At Harvard, Burroughs grew interested in witchcraft, the occult, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He had brought with him a .32 Smith and Wesson revolver. The preoccupations of his life were settling in. To impress a cheap Greenwich Village hustler called Jack Anderson, he cut one of his fingers off at the joint, and felt, as he later wrote, that “a lifetime of defensive hostility had fallen from him.”
Not quite fallen from—risen out of, you might say. Two years later his best friend David Kammerer was stabbed to death by another friend, Lucien Carr. This event would prove to be a central one for the ragbag of Columbia students and others who formed the Beats, because it showed them a possible price of their experiments. (Their great hero, the child-poet Rimbaud, enjoyed a similar eye-opener, when his “derangement of all the senses” philosophy met its natural manifestation, in the mad, degraded Verlaine coming at him with a gun.) Before the death of Kammerer, the fledgling Beat crowd, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the others, might have been merely experimenting with the lower depths, befriending criminals and fizzing with drugs as an accompaniment to jazz “revelations.” But Lucien Carr, in a moment of madness, showed them what really happens in the vicious underworld.
Barry Miles combines the biographer’s art and some of the novelist’s in describing the scene. Here he causes the reader to enter Kammerer’s studio apartment in the Village:
Kammerer’s room was large but low-ceilinged. A small writing table stood against another French window that looked out over a courtyard littered with old tin cans. At the other end of the room a comfortable sofa sat against an ugly black partition that separated off a kitchenette. There was a disused white icebox with its doors open to reveal empty whiskey and soda bottles. The sink was littered with can openers, half-eaten food, and strands of red hair. Adjacent to the sofa was a large open fireplace, packed high with newspapers, half-burnt wood, cigarette butts, and used matches. On the mantel was an open copy of Rimbaud in which was placed a small drawing of a dark windswept, swirling sea with a rock jutting out of the waves.
He could go easier on the use of the word “littered,” but otherwise this is a portrait as sympathetic and detailed as one of Zola’s. The homosexual Kammerer will face his death so that these boys can get it together and write, though other deaths, and other breakdowns, would take place before the group was published in book form. This murder forms the central event in a recent film, Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas.* When we first meet Burroughs (Ben Foster) he is lying in a bath at a party wearing a face mask, through which he is breathing nitrous oxide. “Is he a criminal?” asks Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe).
“He wishes he were a criminal,” replies Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). “He’s going to be an amazing artist. His current medium is himself.”
The film, like many others that exploit myths of hot jazz and cold murder among the group of naughty students who formed the Beats, is too excitable to be reliable, but it captures something of the period’s manic self-abasement, when middle-class boys with literary ambitions took to playing with states of psychosis. A few years later Burroughs shot his wife dead in a “William Tell” shooting accident. (Also the central incident in a film: the David Cronenberg version of Naked Lunch.) Joan Vollmer was twenty-eight years old at the time and the mother of his only child. You might say that all of Burroughs’s life and ideas were leading up to this point—“he already knew,” writes Miles, “that he had been invaded by the Ugly Spirit”—but it might be more interesting to note that all his talent and his writing would flow from it. Controversially, he noted the fact himself decades later, in an introduction to his book Queer. “I am forced to the appalling conclusion,” he writes,
that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
I’m not sure this could be called an apologia, but to his friend James Grauerholz, it seemed so. “This apologia may be just a bit disingenuous,” Miles quotes him writing, “because Burroughs had already written a nearly-complete draft of Junkie by December 1950, eight months before Joan’s death.”
If you could choose a moral life to live, you wouldn’t choose William Burroughs’s. But you might say he had the courage of his past convictions. He wrote his way out, as he said, and at the same time he wrote his way in, finding, in his imaginative predicament, a nearly perfect simulacrum of the cold war quagmire of the period. When you see documents from the FBI, with their blocks of blacked-out text, their hieroglyphics of referral and concealment, what do they look like if not a page of William Burroughs’s famous cut-up? His own psychosis, you might say, was met with the psychosis of the period, and I won’t be the first to note that Burroughs would have been a natural employee of the CIA if he hadn’t been busy elsewhere.
It turns out that the novels of this mid-twentieth-century artist and human wreck can speak to a matter that is seemingly deathless in the moral experience of the West—the matter of covert operations. Long before there was a closed-circuit TV camera, a laptop computer, a drone, or a mobile phone, he saw that surveillance, however it came, was a cancer that grew by itself in the body politic. Every man was his own state to be invaded and corrupted by addictive forces, some of them government-sponsored, and his picture of this phenomenon, across eighteen novels, is the best we have, despite their faults.
Such are the rudimentary dualities of American writing. Burroughs was a nightmare to himself and others, a man who just happened, and happens, via a singular talent, to awaken readers to a horror of our own collective making. We don’t just experience our nightmares, we vote for them, and we pay for them with our taxes. In his 1965 Paris Review interview, Burroughs manifested his contradictions with aplomb, supporting Scientology while railing against the corporate world. And by this time he was bent on being clear. “I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally,” he said,
to make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up the marks. All of my work is directed against those who are bent, through stupidity or design, on blowing up the planet or rendering it uninhabitable. Like the advertising people…, I’m concerned with the precise manipulation of word and image to create an action, not to go out and buy a Coca-Cola, but to create an alteration in the reader’s consciousness.
It would take a later novelist, Don DeLillo, to introduce the idea that a gunman or a bomber might more successfully alter the consciousness of our time than a writer. And Burroughs, with what Miles calls his “puerile infatuation with guns,” might be the one writer who could both feed and contradict DeLillo’s prediction. Burroughs will always be a hero to those who wish their artists to go personally to the dark places of their art, especially if the fans are going there too, as the rock star Kurt Cobain knew himself to be when he visited Burroughs.
Rock music is a performance art, and so was the Beat movement. They each wanted drugs and freer sex, they each wanted to live the thing they were making signs about, and, with the writers, it begins to seem that what they believed in was a kind of Method Writing. They had to draw it from themselves. They had to experience the thing in order to know it. They didn’t do research; they did it for real. They walked the walk, in other words, or they staggered the stagger, and each of them, primarily William Burroughs, was compelled to go underground and come back with the goods.
The goods, or the evils. Some of those young literary men wanted so much to experience evil that one could almost forget they were just nice boys. I don’t know that William Burroughs really had a bad bone in his body or an evil thought in his head, though he liked it when his old friend Brion Gysin said that “man is a bad animal.” Burroughs shared with Robert Louis Stevenson an almost feverish ability to conjure with monsters, though the man from St. Louis found it harder to extract himself from being implicated in monstrous processes. Death became him because death had always been the seed from which he grew.
The human animal, in any event, was always an ectoplasmic thing to him, and in the end he struggled to perceive a soul in human beings—as opposed to a ghostliness—that could equal that of his cats. “When Ruski was in the hospital with pneumonia,” he writes in The Cat Inside,
I called every few hours. I remember once there was a long pause and the doctor came on to say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Burroughs”…the grief and desolation that closed around me. But he was only apologizing for the long wait…“Ruski is doing fine…temperature down…I think he’s going to make it.” And my elation the following morning: “Down almost to normal. Another day and he can go home.”
It was also one of the stories that is said to have informed James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room. ↩