Like a king-sized cliché, I sat in a chair on the second floor of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 2003 reading Penguin’s 50th Anniversary Definitive Edition of William S. Burrough’s Junky. The clock’s hands were closing in on midnight. I’d been utterly absorbed by the book for four hours and only had a mere twenty pages before the end. So I decided to buy the book and finish it on the plane back to Jersey.
Junky marks my first experience with William S. Burroughs, arguably the most profane and profound icon of the 1950s Beat Generation. My desire to read Burroughs came on the heals of yet another typical poet thing to do: a road trip with my boy Alain across half of the American landscape listening to Matt Dylan read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. As much as I enjoyed the beatnik bible, I found a deeper kinship with the language of Burroughs––the gritty streetness of it all, the details in between the travails of the junkie and his beat-down lifestyle. The book had a kind of Clockwork Orange fondness to it, as well as its own glossary of “jive talk,” two bit Nadsat so as to score a script from the doctor to lay a spikeful of stuff in your arm. Yeah, I dig that kind a wordsmithing. Real horrorshow.
It would be years later before I read my second Burroughs novel, Naked Lunch. Well, not years, really. I tried once before, probably around 2004 or 2005, but I really couldn’t get my head wrapped around the experience, for it’s no mere read. I forced myself through the hell mouth of the first few pages where I got a sorrowful glimpse of a crazy, lewd, disgusting cosmic dung heap. I shut the book, put it in the freezer like Joey from Friends, but this ice age lasted a few years.
In the interim, I watched the film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg instead. That was no picnic either!
When I finally got back to it, I found myself more deeply involved in Naked Lunch (what had happened to me during those years between, I wonder?) There were times when I’d be paging on and on and asking myself “why am I reading this shit?” Then I’d come to a single line of abhorrent genius, and I’d mutter to myself “Ah yes. That’s why!” Amidst all the talking assholes (literally!) and sexual decapitations, the catamites and their aging proselytes of doom (which is all very darkly funny, don’t get me wrong), there would come amidst this vocabulary, at times sumptuous and other times scurrilous, a pure gem of a line, a transient moment of insight into the deepest understandings of being human wandering amongst the drecks and droogies of a pissoir world. That was all I needed; I’d keep reading about Dr. Benway’s flagrant experiments in the science of inhumanity or the exploits of Placenta Juan the Afterbirth Tycoon before arriving at another vatic oasis in this desert of dark and dismal comedy and error. Then again I’d be lost in a giant orgy at “Hassan’s Rumpus Room” only to land my eyes on yet another tiny moment of prescient narrative genius.
I guess there’s something to be said about a “Harvard Man” who gets involved with heroin, has a penchant for firearms, shoots his wife in the head, is homosexual yet funnels all the love in his heart into his cats that I think might intrigue anyone, or at the very least creep a few people out. But in the wonderful documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, directed by Yony Leyser, we are given a grand tour of William S. Burroughs the man through intimate archival footage that allows the us to delve a bit deeper into the inner workings of his mind––that mysterious and mythical cosmos from where he’d penned his best known works. Interviews with film icons like John Waters and Peter Weller, who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s film, add life to the legend of Old Bill Lee and 1950s Americana and all the misconceptions that go with them. Like other documentaries of its kind about writers and artists (Bukowski: Born into This and Kurt Cobain About a Son spring to mind), Leyser’s film offers us insight into Burroughs’s life and leaves us with sheer wonder. Unlike these other two films, we also get to see how Burroughs has impacted the pop culture scene as we know it, reaching out an influential hand in everything from the punk uprising to the gay rights movement.
I can’t recommend William S. Burroughs: A Man Within enough. It’s quite possibly the best, most honest portrait of a true artist and craftsman of words and worlds that ever walked amongst giants.
I’ll be totally honest––Burroughs scares the shit out of me! But his words are magical in their disparity and disgust, and at the same time innovative and daring. That’s what keeps me reading, or rather wanting to read, since I’ve only got Junky and Naked Lunch under my belt so far. I attempted The Soft Machine, the first part of a trilogy of cut-up novels, last winter, but I was stricken with what I call Naked Lunch Syndrome 25 pages in––I just couldn’t wrap myself up in it, even though I know that when I do, it’ll blow my mind. So this year I’ll take on Queer instead and leave The Soft Machine for the winter of 2012 where I can read all about “The Mayan Caper” in all my clichéd ecstasy!
And now, a little something from the man himself. Enjoy!
2 thoughts on “No Man Without William S. Burroughs”
Great post on an excellent author. Yes, he weirds me out but I can’t seem to stay away from him. One of my favorite line of Burrough’s is “like a virus from outer space.” I use it every chance I get.
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