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How William Burroughs Burnt Out

The writer's newly released letters prove that his wasted image was more than a pose.

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Burroughs rubbing out the words Photo via

By Tony O'Neill

02/07/12

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Sitting down to read my copy of Rub Out The Words—The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 (released this week by a division of HarperCollins) feels like sitting down to enjoy a smoke and a chat with an old friend. This book of correspondence was assembled by Burroughs’ biographer Bill Morgan, and covers a pivotal era in the author’s life: starting in the beat era and finishing when punk is picking up steam, the collection includes letters to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Paul Bowles, Alexander Trocchi, Norman Mailer and Brion Gysin.  

I’m always pleased to spend some time in Bill Burroughs’ company, and the chances have been few and far between recently, since I exhausted most of his back catalogue some years ago. All that’s left to look forward to are posthumous collections like this, and the occasional re-read of an old book. Along with the writings of a handful of others—Dan and John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Alexander Trocchi, Herbert Huncke, Donald Goines and Jim Thomspon—the books of William Burroughs twisted my worldview completely. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was never the same again after reading them.

Bill never apologized for his drug habit. In Junky, he never made us sit through the interminable final chapters where he got clean, found God, or took up golf.

Out of all those aforementioned writers, Burroughs is the only one I would classify as something more than a writer. He was a philosopher. I read Burroughs at the right time: I was young enough that my personality was still forming and his writing left an indelible impression on me  

Let me give you an example.

I first read Naked Lunch when I was 14 or 15, living in a small mill town in the northwest of England. We had one bookshop then; a mom-and-pop operation that carried mostly mass market paperbacks. In those pre Internet days, I’m not exactly sure how I first heard about William Burroughs—it certainly wasn’t in school, where we were taught a diet of Shakespeare, Dickens and the like. I have the impression it was via music since Burroughs was a particular favorite of the punk and post punk groups. I grew up in the era just prior to Britpop, where nothing too interesting was going on in the charts. I was constantly looking back, listening to Iggy Pop, David Bowie, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pop Group, Public Image. I’m sure it was here that I first heard Burroughs’ name mentioned. I was a voracious reader, thirsty for books that stepped outside of the accepted reading lists of my Catholic high school. Burroughs sounded ideal.

I went to the bookstore and ordered a copy of his best-known novel.

I remember distinctly the sour look the old woman gave me when I ordered it: she repeated the title back to me, as if the very name was distasteful. I felt vaguely embarrassed, as if I had asked her for a pornographic magazine. When the book arrived a week or so later, it was handed to me with what I felt was a look of marked disapproval. She was old, I remember that, but everybody seems impossibly old when you’re 14. Maybe she had read the book and was taken aback that someone so young would read it. Already, I had the thrilling sense that reading Naked Lunch was something perverse—transgressive even.  

When I started reading it, I was disappointed to learn that I didn’t understand a fucking word of it. I had no frame of reference for a novel like this. The esoteric drug slang, the strange sex acts, the lack of narrative coherence, and the fast and loose experiments with language—I may as well have been reading a book written in Mandarin Chinese. But this book fascinated me as much as it repelled me; the only other experience I can liken it to was catching David Lynch’s Eraserhead on late night TV when I was 10. That black-and-white slice of bizarro gave me vivid nightmares. I didn’t understand it but I was hypnotized by it.

Years later, I was in a shooting gallery in East LA with a girl I used to score with. Fixing, lying around high, and lazily talking about this and that. She loaned me her copy of Junky, saying, “It’s the best book you’ll ever read about dope.” I took it home and devoured it. This was early Burroughs, before the wild language experiments of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, or The Ticket That Exploded. It was written in a stripped down, hardboiled style that I liked. Even though it was talking about the life of a drug addict in the 1950s, it seemed utterly modern to me. It still makes the blockbuster drug memoirs so popular today seem sentimental, cheap, manipulative and badly written.  

Bill never apologized for his drug habit. In Junky, he never made us sit through the interminable final chapters where he got clean, found God, or took up golf. He never expressed regret. He viewed his addiction to narcotics with the detached interest of a clinician studying his own case history. I agree with the girl who gave it to me. It is the best account of drug addiction I have ever read. Nothing else comes close. 

Bill died strung out, and at the ripe old age of 83. Live fast, die really fucking old. 

These letters are a peek into the private life of Bill Burroughs. Interestingly enough, they prove that the image that Bill projected to the world was no mask. People misunderstood it for sure; they created a simplistic version of Bill—“El Hombre Invisible,” the wife killer, the misogynist, the dope-fiend—as people are wont to do. But any serious reader of Burroughs’ novels, short stories, cut-ups, and routines will find a voice they recognize here. 1959-74 was a pivotal period for Burroughs. Naked Lunch had just been published. He was bouncing around between Tangier, London, Paris and the states, always on the run from the oppressive forces of Control. It is the period in which he would pioneer—with Brion Gysin—the “cut-up method." His letters are often as beautiful and as fractured as his novels.

(To Brion Gysin, May 16, 1960)

What are your plans? I want to go to Hong Kong and learn Chinese. Imagine repetitive poems and cut ups Chinese. Shift lingual. Maybe Franchette will see me George at a way. Saw Doctor Dent. Scientologists have moved in next door. More about Anslinger. Even lousier than I thought. And the whole Lexington project stinks like an undercover Belsen. Another rancid oil scandal. Will this flag n’er be clean? And the Coca Cola Gimmick. What a crock of shit. Learning Morse code in spare time. The scouts are always prepared.

After Junky, I went back to Naked Lunch. Suddenly found I could make perfect sense of it, as if I were reading with a new pair of eyes. This perception shift changed my experience of the novel totally.  It became my favorite book, a bible of sorts, the sort of book I could crack at a random page, read a section, and take some valuable lesson from. This was the beginning of my real fascination with the Burroughs-ian universe. Throughout my whole life—the years of drug addiction and my life as a writer—Burroughs has been a constant, faithful companion.

Here’s a story.

I remember when I checked into rehab for the first time. I had the clothes on my back, a broken cell phone, and a copy of Naked Lunch. A serious young man confiscated the book after searching through my bag for contraband. “Sorry, only recovery related literature is permitted,” he said. They handed me a copy of the Big Book. I read it.  I stayed in there for 30 days, relapsed in three.  

When I kicked junk the final time, nine years ago, I did it in London with an ounce of grass, a few good albums, some Valium, and a bunch of novels—Naked Lunch included.  Burroughs’ writing helped me in ways that the writing of that other Bill never could.

"Junk is the ideal product...the ultimate merchandise,” Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch. “No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy...The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer; he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. He pays his staff in junk." 

Tony O'Neill is the author of the novels Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel as well as a regular contributor to The Fix who has interviewed Jerry Stahl and argued against abstinence, among many other topics.

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