Wednesday, April 16, 2014

William Burroughs: A Life

My review of William S Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles in last weekend's Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald. (See if you can spot the not 1, not 2 but 3 obiter dicta sarky remarks about Bono)
...
William Burroughs would have been 100 this year. Not that it ever seemed likely that Burroughs would reach a century. From his early 20s onward he began regularly taking heroin, cocaine, methadone, tobacco, amphetamines and marijuana. When he couldn't get proper drugs, like the hero of his most famous novel, The Naked Lunch, he injected himself with bug spray, sniffed household solvents and drank rubbing alcohol.
   You'd think that Burroughs was escaping an unhappy childhood but in fact he was born into a wealthy St Louis family in 1914, in a house with three black servants, an Irish cook and a Welsh nanny. The latter two apparently filled the young boy's head with such convincing tales of the supernatural that he believed them all his life.
   Heirs to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune, the family comfortably survived the Wall Street Crash and sent young Bill to the Los Alamos Ranch School, New Mexico, the most expensive boarding establishment in America. Harvard followed and a grand tour of Europe before Burroughs fell in with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and later Neal Cassady in New York. All four of them wanted to be writers and when Kerouac was published first their circle became known as the ''Beat Generation'', influenced as much by jazz rhythms as by classic literature. Bisexual, hedonistic, low-rent and self-important, the Beats broke the mould of what it meant to be an American writer in the 1950s. Authenticity was the great thing: you wrote about drugs and sex and your feelings, not about corporation shills in ties being unfaithful to their Betty Draper wives in the identikit suburbs.
   All of Burroughs' early literary experiments, however, failed miserably and he moved to Mexico where there was easy access to heroin and boys. One drunken night in Mexico City while attempting to demonstrate his marksmanship, he shot and killed his surprisingly tolerant wife, Joan Vollmer. The Burroughs family hired expensive lawyers and Bill was released after less than two weeks in jail, with a sentence of probation and a few churlish complaints about the cold prison beds.
   He moved to New York and then to Tangier and began to write in earnest, as an attempt to exorcise the ''Ugly Spirit'' that he said had forced him to kill Joan. Junkie was published in a paperback edition that sold 150,000 copies. The Naked Lunch followed soon thereafter and, like James Joyce's Ulysses, had the great luck to be condemned by the United States Post Office as obscene, thus assuring its place in the counterculture.
   Barry Miles, drawing on the previous research of James Grauerholz and his own 30-year friendship with Burroughs, has produced an encyclopaedic and staggeringly well-researched book. In William S. Burroughs: A Life we discover Bill in his Scientology phase attempting surreptitiously to tape record L. Ron Hubbard. Paul McCartney shows up to write Eleanor Rigby in Burroughs' basement. Bill is there when a drunken Kerouac is famously destroyed on American television by William F. Buckley. And in the funniest episode in the book, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg visit a paranoid Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who assures them his snarling attack dogs are trained only to go after the postman.
   Throughout the '60s and '70s the Burroughs cult grows. He appears next to Marilyn Monroe on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album and on a 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live, supermodel Lauren Hutton introduces him as the ''greatest living writer in America''.
    Burroughs writes, paints, acts in movies and becomes very famous indeed. Once the hippest guy in the room, Burroughs in his later years, however, becomes something of a bore, playing with guns and babbling about magic and the occult. His reading material consists of the magazines Gun WorldGun TestsGun DigestUFO Universe and Soldier of Fortune. He becomes a cuddly ''national treasure'' and does ads for Nike. He suffers fools gladly and the usual parade of sycophants and groupies make the pilgrimage to his dreary Kansas compound. One morning it's Michael Stipe standing there holding the milk, the next Bono's cuban heels come click-clacking down the drive. Bono becomes a repeat offender house-guest, which almost makes you believe in karma.
   Burroughs finally dies of a heart attack in 1997, four months after Allen Ginsberg, 30 years after Kerouac and Cassady. Barry Miles thoroughly documents all of this; perhaps even a little too thoroughly, for there are only so many houses, hotels, boyfriends, liaisons, orgies, drugs, drug cures, cults, cult cures, favourite guns, least favourite guns, that the reader can handle before becoming a little overwhelmed. But in lieu of a shorter, deeper, more pointed book, Burroughs: A Life will almost certainly remain the definitive biography for many years to come.

28 comments:

Brendan O'Leary said...

1. Once hippest ...bore
2. Nike ad
3. Cuban heels
?

Alan said...

Adrian.A well written review of a rather shabby man blessed with the ability to write but not to live well. He and Celine were certainly the dregs of civilization. I think Orwell's"Down And Out in London And Paris" is a testament to hope and caring and "Humanity" in the face of insufferable poverty.Best Alan

Anne said...

Adrian, I hope you won't take this as an insult, because it is meant as a compliment, but I think you have missed your vocation: you really should be a book reviewer for a major national newspaper (if you have had enough of being a novelist). Your talent is wasted in Australia, in my opinion .

seana graham said...

I think the main lesson I would take from that if I were a wife, is to never, ever be surprisingly tolerant. It will apparently come back and bite you.

I am not a fan of the Beats. Should I read Burroughs despite my dislike of him on a personal level?

Anne, I fear some Australians may take that as an insult. Besides, why does he have to choose?

Michelle said...

"The St Alamos School New Mexico" ??? Do you mean the Los Alamos Ranch School?

Brendan O'Leary said...

Book reviewing positions in major newspapers probably do not constitute an expanding employment market, even in London and New York.

For all I know, Australian newspapers might pay as well for reviews as anywhere in the Anglosphere.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I tried reading Naked Lunch when I was young. Maybe I was working in the mines, I can't remember. I didn't finish it. The image of "slunks" stuck in my mind, having delivered many calves as a youngster.

Overall I found the tone lurid, delirious, like a showbiz scandal sheet on heat. I persevered as long as I did because it seemed "important" - and I don't like chucking a book halfway through.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I reckon the 4 digs against Bono are these: 1. Cuban heels, i.e. he's a vain shortarse 2. Burroughs suffers fools gladly 3. he's a repeat offender visitor 4. Bono continued presence almost makes you believe in Karma (for killing his wife and other crimes).

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

He almost redeemed himself with the scientology stuff and at least he was no hypocrite.

I do love Down and Out.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Well the SMH and The Age are pretty prominent papers in this region of the world...

And I did have a piece in the Guardian a few weeks back on the provenance of Game of Thrones

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/mar/17/game-of-thrones-george-rr-martin-song-ice-fire

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I think you can happily skip Burroughs. The biography is pretty interesting though...

adrian mckinty said...

Michelle

Ah I can see what they did there. They saw St Louis and transcribed it twice. I'll fix on my blog at some point today.

Most interesting part of the book I think those Los Alamos school sections....

seana graham said...

Happily skipping things may be my new trend. Or maybe happily giving up on things instead of doggedly hanging on till the bitter end.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't believe I had ever seen the words "happily skipping" in a sentence that concerned William S. Burroughs. He was in part responsble for a humorous image conjured up the horizontal juxtaposition of books I once saw at a secondhand bookshop: WIlliam S. Burroughs on top of WIlliam F. Buckley.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Actually Junky has its moments too. Ballard whom I love loved Naked Lunch what I dont really get at all.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

A good bit in the book is when Kerouac is about to go on Buckley's show. Burroughs sees that he's hammered and he Ginsburg beg him to call the whole thing off but Kerouac insists...What follows is an embarrassment for everybody (except for Buckley).

seana graham said...

Well, I'll have to give him a try at some point. I don't say that I would like him more than Don Draper, if Don Draper were real, but I doubt I'd like him less. They both seem very self indulgent.

Mark English said...

Seana wondered whether she should read Burroughs despite disliking him on a personal level, and, in response to Adrian's response, says that happily skipping things may be her new trend.

Which sounds fine to me, certainly in respect of William S. Burroughs and friends, but also in respect of the domain of reading generally which necessarily entails skipping the overwhelming (and increasing) bulk of available material.

'Well read' is a term from another age.

Nice piece Adrian. I like the ending particularly.

seana graham said...

Mark, I've just been thinking the same thing about reading. Not about books, but about being pulled off track so often via the internet just because something sounds 'interesting'. I am not a very systematic kind of person, so I always kind of read this way, but I think the current era where a thousand things can grab our attention so easily and even be worthwhile in some sense, but still not be quite what would be in our best interest to attend to is a time where we have to pull ourselves in in some fashion just a little more. Not from our blog host's suggestions, of course.

Mark English said...

Seana, yes. And if we struggle who had the benefit (as I see it) of a more disciplined and informationally-constrained formal education – and so know that quieter world as a real and non-threatening possibility – younger people by and large will struggle even more to pull themselves in, as you put it.

seana graham said...

Agreed, Mark. Although personally, I ocan't say that I was particularly disciplined in earlier days. So I expect those who are more accustomed to this era will figure out their own ratios too.

I was with my book group last night after just having read Sweet Thursday. Pretty much all of us had some association to living around the Monterey Bay, and many were quite drawn to life as portrayed in the book, remembering when they lived in households where even television, never mind everything else wasn't central and people just sat around and talked. It wasn't actually so long ago.

Obviously, I have nothing against the internet as a form of communication, but I can remember my youthful anti-TV days, which went on for some years, partly because I had no access to cable. I think the difference now is that there is so much more social pressure to be connected.

Terry Orstralis said...

Australia is actually a real country, not just a made-up place in Neighbours and Home And Away. We have our own newspapers and we print our own money and everything.

Anne said...

Well It was rather unkind of me to have a dig at Australia's cultural impact on the rest of the world (although I didn't even mention Sir Les Patterson), but I can't imagine that many non-Aussies bother to read the Australian press for book reviews. Let's face it, even Australian-born authors, actors, comedians and film directors usually have to come over to Britain or America to make the big time. I still believe your work would have more impact if you lived here in the UK, especially as you have talked about moving to Scotland eventually.

John McFetridge said...

For a long time I thought I couldn't try to be a writer because I didn't like Kerouac and Burroughs or even Bukowski.

Actually, I still worry about that...

seana graham said...

John, you shouldn't.

adrian mckinty said...

John

You should try Bukowski again. Post Office and Hollywood are both very funny. I think you'd dig.

adrian mckinty said...

Terry

And the Age is a paper of record. SMH too I think.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

You cant argue with 12 straight years of economic growth. Although it does mean that I'll never be able to afford to buy a house in Melbourne.