By Steven Nester
With the exception of Junky (1953), nothing William S. Burroughs ever wrote was as fascinating as the life he led. Burroughs (1914-1997) was a founding member of the Beat Generation, and Junky, a fictionalized yet faithful retelling of his childhood and time as a petty criminal and drug addict, is required reading. But be forewarned: Unlike the ecstatic declaiming of Allen Ginsburg (“angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”) or the spectacular yearnings of Jack Kerouac (“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”), the work of Burroughs (“I could feel the Federals moving steadily closer”) is much different. Junky is sinister and wary, an episodic, illuminating, and sometimes ennui-producing book.
Burroughs was a complicated man. An outsider and a misanthrope, he represented the dark side of a social and literary movement which was, in addition to being a rebellion against conformity and the status quo, a predominantly joyous celebration of life. From the beginning of Junky, narrator William Lee (the same name Burroughs used as his byline when this book was originally published) knows he’s a different sort of cat; he doesn’t fit in anywhere, even in his earliest memories, as Burroughs knew of himself. As a boy he was a “chronic malingerer” and a vandal. As he matured, he acknowledged his homosexuality but found that “queer behavior” gave him “the horrors.” Only a modest trust fund enables Lee to keep aloof and independent of a society that spurns him, and which he rejects as well. As a child, the nightmare-prone Lee hears an Irish maid say that opium will cause “sweet dreams.” He vows to try the drug, but once he becomes an addict, the dreams are not so sweet.
The underworld of drug addicts has its own rituals, ethos, codes of conduct, and social structure, and Lee accepts it with open arms; but it comes with a chokehold. Lee quickly discovers that “junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” He realizes he is chained to his addiction and beholden to the bottom feeders who are now his cohorts. As horrible as it sounds, for a time addiction gives structure and a sense of belonging to Lee’s desultory existence. Henceforth, readers are treated to a boots-on-the-ground view of the day-to-day struggle of an opiate addict during the 1950s; and folks, it isn’t pretty.
Lee’s days and nights are devoted to stealing from drunks on the subway (“lush working”), scoring his next fix, hoodwinking doctors into writing him fake morphine prescriptions, fencing stolen goods, eluding police, drug dealing to feed his habit, and plenty of listless waiting in coffee shops for dealers to show up. In addition, he must cope with a community of deplorables—“mooches,” “fags,” “four-flushers,” “stool pigeons,” “bums,” “Jews,” “pimps,” “rats,” “panhandlers,” “fruits,” “croakers,” and “characters who could not be classified,” all of them his comrades in needle-scarred arms.
Readers will perk up when Junky reveals an early whiff of the sci-fi-lite surrealism of Burroughs’s later work, as encountered in the groundbreaking and hallucinatory Naked Lunch (1959), among others. For instance, Lee observes: “One afternoon I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drug stores on Forty-second Street.” The description of a character’s eyes as “black with an insect’s unseeing calm,” brings to mind “insect lust,” a recurring phrase in Naked Lunch (which Burroughs apparently lifted from Alexander Pope’s satiric masterpiece, The Dunciad, Book IV line 415).
Burroughs’ humor is sly, and readers will grin at the dry satire in Junky as Lee, on the lam, opines, “Safe in Mexico I watched the anti-junk campaign. I read about child-addicts and senators demanding the death penalty for dope peddlers. It didn’t sound right to me. Who wants kids for customers? They never have enough money and they always spill under questioning.”
The theme of control is constant in Junky, symbolized by addiction as Lee surmises that “junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness.” The narrator’s much-maligned fellow gays are “ventriloquist dummies” that “jerk around like puppets on invisible strings” as they too, represent those who have somehow forfeited their freedom.
If there’s any upside to all this, it’s that when subsumed into the collective psyche of the addict, Lee develops a finely tuned focus of mind which manifests itself in a superpower of sorts: Lee can find dope anywhere, or at least knows where it can be found. “I don’t spot junk neighborhoods by the way they look, but by the feel, somewhat the same process by which a dowser locates hidden water,” the protagonist explains. “I am walking along and suddenly the junk in my cells moves and twitches like a dowser’s wand: ‘Junk here!’” However, the irony runs deep in this meretricious characteristic: Lee knows where to go to score, but that’s just an indication of how profound is his transformation from normal citizen to dope-dependent automaton. Although he’s no longer up to his neck in addiction, the condition has completely taken over and changed Lee into another kind of entity, and this causes other problems as well.
After being run out of New York by narcotics detectives, Lee detoxes in Kentucky, then meanders between Texas and New Orleans. New Orleans becomes a drag after Lee is busted; and the last straw is when Louisiana passes a law making addiction a crime. Lee finds this move—“penalizing a state of being”—incomprehensible, and an egregious invasion of one’s essential nature, with the implication that addicts should be compelled to conform to society’s laws or face disciplinary action simply for what they are.
Interestingly, Junky is a fairly decent noir-styled narrative—if only there was enough action and plot structure to create dramatic arc and tension. Burroughs is inclined toward the tough and terse in his phrasing, and his prose is consistently concise and flawless.
Three young hoodlums from Brooklyn drifted in, wooden-faced, hands-in-pockets, stylized as ballet. They were looking for Jack. He had given them a short count in some deal. At least, that was the general idea. They conveyed their meaning less by words than by significant jerks of the head and by stalking around the apartment and leaning against the walls. At length, one of them walked to the door and jerked his head. They filed out.Norman Mailer nailed it when he famously called Burroughs “the American Genet,” Jean Genet being a fellow traveler of Burroughs, a French writer, criminal, homosexual, and public conscience of a sort. Of lawbreakers and their milieu, Genet, like Burroughs, had much to say, including: “Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe. They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breathe it.”
Sooner or later, men such as Genet and Burroughs, if they are lucky enough to have survived the repugnant world they’ve constructed, and escape to tell others about it, can sometimes create great art. While far from perfect, Junky is one of these beautiful efforts wrenched from the depths and brought into the light.