William S. Burroughs: A Life, Barry Miles, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014, 740pp, £30 (hardback)

Considering the profligate varieties and amounts of sex, drugs and booze William Seward Burroughs II got through, it’s pretty amazing he lived so long. Born in St Louis a century ago and named after his grandfather W. S. Burroughs I of the Adding Machine fame, he died in Lawrence, Kansas in August 1997. About one paragraph in ten of Barry Miles’s apparently exhaustive chronicle of Burroughsiana contains revelations that were brand new to me, who had till now assumed from our thirty-eight years-long friendship since 1959 that I knew Bill pretty well.

Although from 1964 till Burroughs’s death Miles became something of a symbiotic Boswell to W. S. B’s Dr. Johnson, his biography by no means shrinks from exposing in unblinking detail many less than savoury aspects of his hero’s activities. At the same time the book casts laser-sharp light on the way the man’s multifarious experiences infiltrated his equally diverse creations – in visual art, spoken, chanted and collaged wordsounds, and multi-recorded and filmed activities, as well as his massive sequence of flamboyantly experimental books.

Burroughs was nicknamed ‘El Hombre Invisible’ by rent boys in Tangier, but his profile as a cult figure has towered ever higher. The Naked Lunch remains a sacred text of the 1960s counter-culture, and since the eighties media megaphones have been bigging Bill up as the ‘Godfather of Punk’, etc, etc. In more recent years his at once craggy and chameleonic public images, fairy-lit with sensational facts, myths and speculations about his life, have frequently outshadowed awareness of what is enduringly noteworthy about him, his writings.

Miles had, like me, been a fan and avid reader of Burroughs since the late 1950s, and became his archivist in 1972. Guided by ever closer friendships with him and also with his main inspirators (including Allen Ginsberg, the Anglo-Swiss painter and catalyst of cut-ups, Brion Gysin, and James Grau- erholz who became W. S. B’s main minder from 1975 on), Miles builds up a strong book-by-book case for Burroughs as a far-sighted satirist and prophet, carrying on from Swift, Blake and Orwell. His early opposition to censorship, capital punishment and racist violence, and to the vested interests of states, churches, narcotics authorities and armed forces, helped inform manifold deconstructions of and revolutions against these predatory power networks. The greenhouse effect, the AIDS virus, the use of tape- recording and mass media as political weapons, germ and nuclear warfare, all come under the Burroughs microscope with frequently uncanny pres- cience. Thus Miles points out that Naked Lunch’s 1950s vision of a city from which ‘All benches were removed, all fountains turned off, all flowers and trees destroyed’, predicts Pol Pot’s destruction of Cambodia in almost every horrific detail.


In early 1959, my penultimate term at Oxford, a group of friends who identified with avant-gardes in all the arts put together our first New Departures anthology. The Eng Lit syllabus of those years ended in 1850. My co-editors also studying English were happy enough to imbibe the canon from Beowulf to Tennyson for three years, but we soon got more and more engaged with more recent and still living writers and artists. New Depar- tures #1 featured Samuel Beckett, Kurt Schwitters, Stevie Smith and their heterodox ilk, alongside the first pages from the then still uncompleted Na- ked Lunch by Burroughs to appear in Europe.

Ginsberg had put me in touch with Burroughs, by whose first low-life documentary book Junky our group had already been captivated. Many of my friends were messing around with drugs (mainly marijuana) as a part of questioning the family and educational assumptions about our sexual, politico-ethical and career prospects – and here was an author who seemed to have liberated himself from such handicaps to inventiveness as thoroughly as anyone we knew of since Joyce. He had also carried the wilful derange- ment of his senses to the fanatical extremes of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Poe, and lived to tell the tales.

Our little clique felt honoured to welcome him, a pale, bony, rain- coated, generally impassive though somewhat twitchy, drawling expat in his mid-forties, on a day trip to Oxford from London. He brought a burly, rough’n’gruff working-class youngster with him, who peppered our conversations with various no-more-than-averagely lefty sentiments. When this rent-boyish bloke temporarily left our company for the loo, we were surprised at the strident vituperation Burroughs’s increasingly nasal snarl gave vent to, in Commie-baiting terms almost redolent of Senator Joe McCarthy’s opprobria in the then recent House of UnAmerican Activities hearings. And yet as we strolled beneath the dreaming spires and along the Oxford canal (which prompted a more lyrical lilt to Burroughs’s observa- tions), and chatted over drinks in the Randolph Hotel’s Star Bar, in our college rooms and my South Hinksey cottage digs, this near-parodically odd couple exuded a relaxed homo-erotic recognition and understanding of one another. They were clearly bonding more closely than our studentish appreciation and reverence for what we knew of Burroughs’s works could aspire to.

When he became aware that we were planning New Departures #1, Burroughs immediately volunteered to ‘lay some loot’ on us – to the tune of £50 there and then, no small fortune for us kids fifty-five years ago. And when later that summer I brought that first ND anthology to Paris, where Burroughs was then living in what was becoming known as the Beat Hotel at 9 Rue Git le Coeur, he considered it ‘very innaresting.’

Fast Forward to one afternoon in the following summer, 1960, and I’m bringing mescalin filched from the University Psychology Department to Burroughs’s bunker at the dingy Empress Hotel, West Brompton. His room’s only visible sign of habitation, the unlidded portable typewriter, seems to implant into my head as the drug takes effect. I struggle to keep the wildly swirling Van Goghy changes hitting me distinct from what I fancy Burroughs might be making of it, and am relieved when he suggests we take to the streets. The waves of nauseous claustrophobia ebb. But I have to pinch my leg to be sure I’m not hallucinating when, sat an eternity later in a greasy Cromwell Road transport café, he appears to be bashfully chatting up the buxom waitress. Sure, she is ‘kind of cute’, as he mutters – but could this repressed schoolboy nudging me to ‘Look at the treasure-chest on that!’ be our hitherto misogynous Doctor Kool? (Later still I reflect that he may have been simply, writerishly, trying the phrase out on his tongue for size.)


In 1961 Burroughs declared women ‘a basic mistake … the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error’. And love was to his mind ‘a fraud perpetrated by the female sex’. The absence of women from most of his works and life after 1951 is usually attributed to his widespread and militant gay- ness, and to his having that year, at a Bohemian party in Mexico City, misfired a .380 automatic pistol he was about to sell – aimed at a wineglass his common-law wife Joan Vollmer had placed on her head, but instantly killing her.

In his 1985 introduction to the poignantly autobiographical Queer (written thirty years before), Bill came up front about his arrested development, admitting how, as a kicking junkie, he was desperate for contact, ‘an audience, the acknowledgement of his performance, which is a mask to cover up a shocking disintegration. The book is motivated and formed by an event which is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife.’

And ‘Why so carefully avoided?’ I ask in 1992, on the phone from London to the suburban clapboard house in Midwestern Lawrence that’s been his home since 1982. Burroughs’s sprightly rasping seventy-eight-year-old vo- cal groove drops to a wistful note, referring me to Edwin Arlington Rob- inson’s ‘Mistakes too monstrous for remorse/to tamper or to dally with’. But he is remorseful: ‘I must tell you … it was a horrible thing, and it still hurts that some people think it was somehow deliberate. We were both very drunk and reckless. She dared me to shoot the glass off her head, and for God knows what reason I took the dare. For forty-one years I have regret- ted that day.’

Five years later, and four days before he died, Burroughs’s last written words, in his journal, are: ‘Love? What is it? Most natural pain killer what there is. LOVE’ (1 August 1997).

Some of the misogyny presumably derived from the pre-war St Louis and Harvard mores in which Bill was grounded, and some more to his latter- day associations with quite a number of other, mostly homosexual, woman- haters or disparagers.

As feminism swelled from the late 1960s on, Burroughs gradually came to realise that liberated women were no threat to him, as when he conceded in a 1977 interview that ‘The women’s movement is opposed to the matri- archal society. They want job equality and to be treated the same way as men. The difference between the sexes is certainly more sociological than biological – like the Southern Belle who was put on a pedestal.’


Miles is in accord with his subject in holding that Bill only became such a prolific and dedicated literatus in consequence of his killing of Joan: ‘The previous thirty-seven years suggest that he was unlikely to stick at writing. The constant moves, and the repetitive cycle of junk addiction and cure, added up to a dilettante unfocused life’, which would have left him to be remembered, if at all, as an obscure and wayward – if witty – bar-room raconteur.

To quote further from Bill’s introduction to the 1985 edition of Queer, ‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death … I live with the constant threat of possession, a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of

Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.’

Some commentators have suggested Burroughs could have been somewhat devious or disingenuous here, as per Stevie Smith’s charming ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’. In Stevie’s version this Person’s unheralded visit at just the moment when Coleridge was about to complete Kubla Khan was fabricated by the poet as a smoke-screen to veil the true reason for his incapacity to finish the poem – his opium-befuddled writer’s block.

Whatever one might infer, it is a literary mercy that this avowed therapeutic way out for Burroughs athwart ‘The Ugly Spirit’ does seem to have led to such a uniquely way out cornucopia of productions, for the delectation of those of us for whom ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’. For W. S. B addicts, Miles’s 1500-gram deal will be a must.


Why would the likes of Miles and myself commend his oeuvre to potential readers unacquainted with it? The Naked Lunch is the early Burroughs master-work whose streaming mosaic of wordsounds most communicatively draws on from the innovations of Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land – and had the commercial good fortune of being marketed along with Kerouac’s On The Road and Ginsberg’sHowl as supposed loci classici of Beat literature. However, unlike all of these books,Naked Lunch from its very first sentence, conveying the paranoiac intensity of a fugitive dopehead’s jump-cuts, is – quite apart from its formidable ground-breaking aspects – every bit as gripping-beyond-Cinemascope qua rattling good narrative as, say, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and A Gun For Sale: ‘I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train . . .’

Although many have long dismissed the Beats as macho noisebags, vain- glorious self-mythologisers, etcetera, their major published texts soon be- came new testaments of the global love and peace movements. When, after two decades of exile, Burroughs flew to Chicago in August 1968 to cover the Democratic Convention forEsquire, he declared that he ‘felt the seeds I and Allen and Jack had planted were bearing magnificent fruit. These young people challenging the political establishment and battling the police were our spiritual offspring.’

Today, more than forty-five years on from that rebellion in Chicago, much of The Naked Lunch feels perhaps even more prophetic and topical: ‘The black wind sock of death undulates over the land, smelling for the crime of separate life. Population blocks disappear in a checker game of genocide. Power groups frantically cut lines of connection. The planet drifts to ran- dom insect doom.’

Burroughs does not glamorise either queerdom or heroin addiction. Of his relatively undiminished decades on smack, he confessed that ‘Being hooked is more than a waste of time, it’s blank time. It was withdrawal that was most illuminating. A condition of total exposure is precipitated when you cannot choose but see, smell and listen.’

Few prose poets or jazz poets I’m aware of can match W. S. B on his day: ‘Opening bars of East St Louis Toodle-oo . . . at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street’.

And listen to him caricaturing the way addicts ‘lose all shame, gibber and squeal … The spit hangs off their chin, their stomach rumbles and all their guts grind in peristalsis while they cook up, dissolving the body’s decent skin, you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk.’

In another vein, detailing what in most hands might result in just another stereotyped thriller cameo, he tracks the naked quarry of three guys with knives in an upstairs room: ‘Glint of metal and points of light in dark eyes

… pieces of murder slow as opal chips through glycerine … Slower animal reactions allow him a full second to decide: Straight through the window and down into the crowded street like a falling star his wake of glass glit- tering in the sun … sustained a broken ankle and chipped shoulder … clad in a diaphanous pink curtain, with a curtain-rod staff, hobbled away to the Commissariat de Police.’

There are affinities between Burroughs’s simultaneously slapstick, yet sav- age, sometimes morbidly horrendous visions with some of those of his idol Beckett, and also of his Tangier bar-cruising buddy Francis Bacon.

Philip Larkin once expressed fear and loathing of what he demonised as the Unholy Trinity of Modernist Monsters beginning with P – Picasso, Charlie Parker and Ezra Pound. Barry Miles and I, by contrast, rejoice in the uniquely beauteous artistic paths struck by each of these three. As we do in those of three other, equally beloved pioneers of new consciousness whose surnames begin with B: Bacon, Beckett and Burroughs.

It seems likely that all six of these explorers of inner space and devotees of chance operations would relish the fact that, when I too hurriedly tore open my Royal Mailed review copy of another Burroughs biography, Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan (The Bodley Head, 1991), a wodge of the wrapping paper stayed stuck across the middle of the book’s spine. The consequent lettering left visible thereon still reads to this day, l to r: ‘LITERARY . . . . . . . . . ORGAN’!

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