William S. Burroughs lived the kind of life few contemporary American novelists seek to emulate. A roll call of his sins: He was a queer and a junkie before being either was hip; he was a deadbeat father and an absent son; he was a misogynist, a gun lover, and a drunk; he was a guru of junk science and crank religion; he haunted the most sinister dregs of Mexico City, Tangier, Paris, London, and New York; he was an avant-garde writer with little affection for plot and none at all for epiphany; he wore his Americanness like a colostomy bag, shameful but essential. When he died at age 83 in 1997, his last words were: “Be back in no time.” At least he wasn’t a liar.
This year is the centenary of Burroughs’s birth and the occasion for Barry Miles’s new biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life. Miles specializes in Beat literature and is arguably the definitive biographer of Ginsberg and Kerouac, as well as a devout Burroughsian whose 1993 book, William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, remains a mainstay of academic bibliographies. Call Me Burroughs eclipses everything else he’s done in terms of breadth, erudition, and sheer narrative combustion. If you’re one for literary gamesmanship, note that it also trumps Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw (1998) as the authoritative record of Burroughs’s life.
Let me suggest that a fair barometer of biographical writing is how well it resists hyperbole. Miles is successful in this regard, which is impressive given that Burroughs's life yields so much that is extreme. There’s the foggy childhood incident in which his beloved nurse either aborted her baby in front of him or forced him to suck her boyfriend’s penis (years of psychoanalysis never fully recovered the details). Or there’s the murder of Burroughs’s friend David Kammerer, about which Burroughs “showed no emotion.” Or there’s the afternoon that Burroughs, desperately in love with a teenage hustler but also desperately possessive, sawed off his own finger joint with poultry shears in an act of lurid chivalry. Or there’s his smorgasbord of addictions—to heroin, alcohol, marijuana, Eukodol, morphine. Above all, there’s the horrific event he spent endless doped years and infinite harrowing pages trying to exorcize: the shooting incident in which he killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City, 1951.
Joan Vollmer is something like the Tokyo Rose of Beat literature; her presence is subliminal but toxic. She appears as June in Kerouac’s The Vanity of Duluoz and is the subject of at least one wrenching elegy by Ginsberg, in which he imagines her “face restored to a fine beauty / tequila and salt had made strange / before the bullet in her brow.” For Burroughs, she is something else entirely: the dark poltergeist that disfigured his psyche. Although the death was ruled accidental, Burroughs never forgave himself for killing her during a botched party trick—a reenactment of William Tell shooting an apple off of a head, except in this case the apple was a drinking glass, and Burroughs was a bad (and drunk) marksman. Miles narrates Joan’s death via the eyewitness testimony of Eddie Woods, a young American expat: “The first impression I had was the noise.… The next impression I had was that glass … rolling around in concentric circles on the floor.” In Miles's telling, the moment is as riveting and tragic as it ever was, which is commendable given how thoroughly it’s been autopsied by Beat aficionados.
In his introduction to the autobiographical novel Queer, Burroughs confessed: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.… The death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit.” The “Ugly Spirit” is the sobriquet that artist Brion Gysin gave—or rather, auto-suggested—to Burroughs during a psychic tête-à-tête in 1959. A connoisseur of fringe phenomena (including telepathy and alien abduction), Burroughs seized upon the notion of parasitic control as both a rationale for Joan’s death and the motif of his artistic life. His most arresting novels—Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded—all riff on varieties of human subordination, to drugs, sex, money, language, biology, politics, religion, history, or some other de facto authority. Miles gives the “Ugly Spirit” interpretation pride of place, declaring from the outset: “This is the story of William Burroughs’ battle with the Ugly Spirit.”
The battle was circuitous. Burroughs was intellectually, creatively, and geographically restless, which Miles attributes to a lifelong flight from possession. Burroughs chalked it up as a need to purge the “acquisitive evil” of his wealthy family. (His grandfather invented the adding machine and amassed a fortune, which Burroughs had no trouble spending). After graduating from Harvard in 1936, he searched the globe for an identity that didn’t spark contempt. He briefly studied medicine in Vienna, enrolled in a diplomatic academy in Prague, returned stateside to study psychology at Columbia, then took up and abandoned anthropology and Mayan archaeology at both Harvard and Mexico City College. He worked as a copywriter for an enema product (“unfortunately some 300lb woman sat down on this bloody thing and her guts burst open”), trained to become a pilot, tried to join the army, and, most notably for his later bug-infested fiction, was an exterminator in Chicago (“at one brief point of intersection I did exercise that function and witnessed the belly dance of roaches suffocating in yellow pyrethrum powder.”) In the 1940’s he bought acreage in Texas with the idea of being a cotton farmer. Instead, his harvest rotted while Joan dervished around the house high on Benzedrine and chattering with “speed-freak discussions about white filaments” erupting from her skin.
Burroughs was in more or less permanent exile. He was drawn to metropolises but quickly soured on their bustle (or lack of it). Miles sketches several radiant vignettes of life in Burroughs’s adopted cities. On New York: “Times Square…was a haven for the hustlers and thieves, pickpockets and amphetamine-heads, the pimps and junkies who hung out for hours talking over cold cups of coffee or dunking pound cake at Bickford’s twenty-four hour cafeteria.” On Mexico City: “Grubby babies with faces like an Aztec carving grasped at passersby. The all-pervading smell of confectionary drifted down the Avenida Juárez.” On Tangier: “Young boys, eyes eaten by trachoma, were led by the hand by the eldest among them…evidence of tuberculosis and syphilis was everywhere. Berber women carried enormous loads of charcoal on their backs, their noses frequently eaten away by disease possibly associated with their trade, followed by their menfolk riding donkeys.”
It was in Tangier that Burroughs discovered his talent for transforming into el hombre invisible. This was a projection of anonymity so total it bordered on pseudocide. Miles speculates that invisibility was Burroughs’s way to negotiate his “fear of exposure and his horror of being the object of contempt and ridicule” due to his homosexuality. This is a bold claim to make on behalf of one of America’s most unapologetically gay writers, but sexuality was never a prerogative for Burroughs—it was, in his opinion, a control agent to which he was preconditioned.
This reading informs our understanding of the cut-up method Burroughs developed in Paris with Brion Gysin in the late ’50s. Essentially literary collage, cut-ups, according to the author, were could create an extradimensional and talismanic kinship among texts. Slice through a sheaf of Rimbaud or a pile of New York Times, rearrange the blocks of language, and you’ll unleash the genie inside literature’s magic lamp—or the prose equivalent of turista. Cut-ups allowed Burroughs to efface himself in text the same way he effaced himself in person, by fading into the foreground. Miles chronicles the exuberant collaborations in Paris during which Burroughs and company experimented with scrying, Orgone boxes, dreamachines, telepathy, and drugs—always drugs. If Kerouac was the Beats’ freewheeling angel and Ginsberg their tantric cheerleader, then Burroughs was the eternal saboteur: “I order total resistance directed against this conspiracy to pay off peoples of the earth in ersatz bullshit. I order total resistance.… With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.”
When excerpts of Naked Lunch appeared in the autumn 1958 edition of the Chicago Review, the Reality Studio—i.e., corporatist, mainstream America—was immediately appalled. Columnist Jack Mabley condemned the issue as “one of the foulest collections of printed filth I've seen publicly circulated.” After university bigwigs instructed the magazine to be “completely innocuous” in its next issue, editor Irving Rosenthal and six other staffers resigned in protest. The most troublesome critic was August Derleth, a horror writer best known for being H. P. Lovecraft's first publisher. Derleth lobbied the US post office to prohibit public mailings of indecent material, which resulted in a court trial that ultimately became a referendum on the legality of all such obscene, lewd, or lascivious texts. Naked Lunch wasn't published in the US until 1962, by which time it had already solidified its reputation as a samizdat text.
Call Me Burroughs is ultimately a tribute to its subject’s artistic mutability. Besides being one the twentieth century’s most radical writers, Burroughs was an accomplished visual artist and performer. A tally of those he either collaborated with or influenced reads like an index of cult idols: Kurt Cobain, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Ian Curtis, David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paul McCartney, Gus Van Sant, Tom Waits, U2—the names go on and on. Yet despite his fame, Burroughs remained a vulnerable boy from St. Louis, forever nostalgic for gray Midwest suburbs even as he excoriated their banality. (In 1981, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, a small university town, where he spent his last decades writing, painting, shooting guns, and raising cats). Perhaps this is the key to his magnetism and why his work resonates with readers who suspect there’s something better, more worthy out there in the big American night.
Call Me Burroughs is a reminder, if one is needed, that Burroughs’s work remains essential. His corrosive and wise and inimitably beautiful voice still challenges writers to quit fucking around and make literature that’s as dangerous as pure China White.
Jeremy Lybarger lives in San Francisco and works for Mother Jones. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, The Advocate, Salon, and other publications.