I started reading the Beats in a class taught on mid-century American literature by an ex-pat professor in the University of Denmark at Copenhagen. I never imagined that just five years later I’d be serving a decade in prison after being arrested for armed robbery across the street from the former YMCA where Burroughs lived from 1977 to 1980, on the Bowery in New York City. He had died on my birthday in 1997; I hadn’t even tried smack yet.
The class in Copenhagen was half internationals, half Danes, taught in English by a professor who had to leave the States after marrying a student. The Danes quickly dropped out; in their staid opinions, Neal Cassady was simply a criminal and Kerouac’s work was typing rather than writing. The other Euros stayed because they thought it was hip. The two American students were soon heroin addicts.
If anyone ever made me feel that it was interesting and even noble to do smack, it was William Seward Burroughs II. Kerouac I could bear in his precocious early stage, before he was conscious of his fame, and Ginsberg excited me with Howl then disappointed me with the rest, but Burroughs I fell in love with.
From the appendix to Junky, Burrough’s “introductory” and most readable work: “When a junkie is really loaded with junk he looks dead. Junk turns the user into a plant. Plants do not feel pain because pain has no function in a stationary organism.” There’s more, from the prologue: “Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” Promising, no? More: In Naked Lunch, Burroughs describes how the junkie’s life shrinks down to the size of a needle, living from fix to fix. It took a few weeks of takings shots daily for this exact promise to come true for me.
Burroughs writes that a junkie will crawl through a sewer for the privilege of buying. Every word is accurate. I paid for my pleasure, meeting criminals on street corners, getting arrested in SROs (Single Room Occupancy hotels) for possession, paying prostitutes to cop for me when I couldn’t, and that’s just the beginning. A year and nine months of addiction cost me my profession, my savings and, in the end, a decade of my life. Owing $5,000 to a dealer, I committed robberies with my pocketknife — desperate junky shit. Burroughs had warned me of all this and seduced me into it at the same time. How?
Naked Lunch is one of the greatest works of the 20th century. It is a hard read because it’s composed of routines that are only funny to those who’ve seen the grim side of life and realized that humor is the only antidote. Camus once claimed that the only real question in life is whether or not to kill yourself. After Dachau and the Gulag had been revealed, let alone the killing fields of South East Asia and Africa to this day, it might seem that there is some sense to this. In a world forsaken by a non-existent god and a life without purpose, why even go on? Even the Buddhists admit that life is suffering.
In his twisted, wry way, Burroughs is one of the few writers who answered the question of life’s meaning: As awful as the consequences are, the junky waiting for his connect has reason to live. It’s his next fix. This is a powerful idea to impress on a young man. If addiction is an artificial method of inducing life a reason, why not?
Many reasons, of course, but Burroughs took the thought a step further. As dastardly as this concept is, he found it extraordinarily funny! Naked Lunch, in which everyone is some sort of villainous addict (to roach spray, black meat, etc.), is a very funny book. “And hands move to disembowel the passing whore or strangle the neighborhood child in hope of alleviating a chronic housing shortage” — no worse than Swift suggesting the Irish eat their children.
For most of my life, I have lived as a character in the novel of my own existence, often making the decisions which I imagine would be most interesting to “readers.” Strangely, this approach was quite useful in prison, allowing me to take it lightly and emerge from 10 years of witnessing murders and suicides with my wits and humor intact. In fact, I find horrors like Naked Lunch even more funny now!
Once I met Burroughs through his work, I explored his life as thoroughly as I could. It didn’t start with the smack, but it ended there. I read all of his writing, even the torturous cut-up novels. Then I read the secondary materials, the biographies and the letters. Then I talked with people who knew the man, once spending a surprisingly placid afternoon with Amiri Baraka (in the Hamptons, of all places). I visited where Burroughs had been, and when I started using dope and had to stand on subway platforms, sick as a dog and trying to get downtown with my bowels intact, the thought that Old Bull Lee had stood on the same cement, looked at the same tiles and suffered the same was a comfort to me.
If that was my apprenticeship to the man, it is over. The decade I served was above and beyond anything his comfort-loving soul could have borne. There were things about Burroughs that I willfully ignored but do no longer. He was willing to believe anything metaphysical as long as it was counter to what most people believed — Orgone, aliens, telepathy, Ayahuasca spirits, shamen, even Scientology for a spell. While he made sure to look the part of the Gentleman Junky, he bought the New Age ‘60s part and parcel. Perhaps he did not chant with Ginsberg trying to levitate the Pentagon or drink himself to death like Kerouac, but he did neglect his son, who produced a few novels (which I read as well; not bad) before dying of liver failure at the age of 33. John Giorno called the poor boy the last beatnik. I disagreed; I thought it was me.
Then again, I grew to dislike the other Beat authors. I read a lot of Ken Kesey to see how some of the characters ended up and realized that they were flakes who saw the ‘60s coming a little early. It was Burroughs I cared about, and Burroughs whose works intersected with the literature I felt I was living. I had my 21-year-old ass pinched by Allen Ginsberg himself when I went to go hear his awful poetry because he was a human connection to Burroughs. So how did I outgrow him?
I knew what Burroughs had read and what he had not. As sophisticated an image as the man portrayed, as far as I knew, he had not really understood the major movement of his century: modernism. I don’t think Burroughs grokked Joyce, or Pound, or Proust, or Musil. Kafka, probably; he’s easy — but Gombrowicz and Wittgenstein are hard. Burroughs believed in anything which allowed room for him to continue using. (He was on Methadone until the end of his life at 83, in Lawrence, Kansas.) But as exciting and wonderfully absurd as Burroughs’s work is, as interesting as the idea of an artificially induced meaning of life is, in the end, Burroughs stopped serving me as a model because I out-read him.
It’s a strange feeling, like finally beating your father at arm-wrestling. Here was the one junky I respected for his talent, but in the end, I was ready to move forward. That was when I started to write. Perhaps Burroughs ruined my life by letting me play at literary junky, by letting me stand in his footsteps on the same West 4th Street A train platform mentioned in Junky. He gave me the go ahead, and I went ahead, straight to a bundle a day and a decade in prison. But even though I laugh at Naked Lunch and its horrors to this day, the man is no longer my master. I would have loved to have met him, but in a sense, I lived him, and that cost me a lot. I cast Burroughs as a former U.S. president in my novel, read the works that he never managed to and moved on.
He is still out there to tempt others, to seduce the young with his Mephistophelian image of the Gentleman Junky. I wish them the best; my infatuation cost me heavy. The professor in Copenhagen who witnessed my friend and I indulging in Burroughs pricked up his ears, perhaps suspecting our future. Do you have to be a junky to really get Burroughs? It sure helps, but I’d like to think that the work can stand on its own merit. Just like I can stand on my own as well, without Old Bull Lee behind me.