Good Reading : May 2009
writing life crack shot ROBERT SCHNAKENBERG takes us into the drug-addled world of WILLIAM S BURROUGHS in this extract from Secret Lives of Great Authors. WILLIAM S BURROUGHS FEBRUARY 5, 1914 – AUGUST 2, 1997 NATIONALITY: AMERICAN ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: AQUARIUS MAJOR WORKS: JUNKY (1953), NAKED LUNCH (1959) CONTEMPORARIES & RIVALS: JACK KEROUAC, ALLEN GINSBERG LITERARY STYLE: PARANOID MUSINGS CUT UP AND RANDOMLY REASSEMBLED WORDS OF WISDOM: O ‘IN THE U.S., YOU HAVE TO BE A DEVIANT OR DIE OF BOREDOM.’ ne of world literature’s most celebrated outsiders, William S Burroughs did not lack for establishment bona fides. His paternal grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, invented the calculator. His mother, Laura Harmon Lee Burroughs, claimed to be descended from Confederate general Robert E Lee and had a brother who handled public relations work for John D Rockefeller (not to mention Adolf Hitler). Burroughs himself attended Harvard University, that bastion of Ivy League rectitude, although he retained no affection for the place. THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE Burroughs’s addiction to heroin was powerful and all- consuming. He once sold his typewriter to buy some smack, reducing his literary output to a trickle as he struggled to write out his manuscripts by hand. On another occasion, he confessed to having foregone bathing or changing his clothes for a year, a lifestyle choice that must have endeared him to friends and neighbours. Between fill-ups of horse, Burroughs would sit staring into space for days. ‘I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours,’ he once reported. DO TELL Killing your own wife would be a career-ending misstep for most writers – and most people, generally – but it didn’t seem to break Burroughs’s stride. In 1951, while entertaining at their 54 goodreading i MAY 2009 home in Mexico, Burroughs and his wife, Joan, decided to regale guests with their vaunted ‘William Tell’ routine. Joan balanced a highball glass on her head while Burroughs took aim with his .38 caliber pistol. (The questionable wisdom of a zonked- out heroin addict using a jittery Benzedrine addict for target practice seems not to have occurred to anyone.) Burroughs missed badly, blowing Joan’s brains out and killing her instantly. Party over. After a complicated Mexican legal proceeding involving a few carefully placed bribes, Burroughs was allowed to flee the country and convicted of homicide in absentia. He was given a two-year suspended sentence. Where another man might have been wracked by guilt, Burroughs preferred to look on the bright side. ‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death,’ he later wrote. ‘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.’ THANKS FOR LUNCH, JACK Burroughs’s most memorable work boasts one of literary history’s most arresting titles: Naked Lunch. For that we can thank Jack Kerouac. Burroughs initially planned to call his novel ‘Interzone’, after the ‘international zone’ in Tangiers where he wrote most of its fragments. He later chose the more sensational ‘Naked Lust’. One day Kerouac was visiting Burroughs in his Moroccan redoubt and spotted the manuscript from across the room, reading the title erroneously as ‘Naked Lunch’. Burroughs was so amused by it that he kept it that way – and a literary classic was born. BLADE TO ORDER Eagle-eyed viewers of Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir classic Blade Runner may notice Burroughs’s name in the credits. The title was a tip of the hat to the Naked Lunch author, who around that time was circulating a screenplay called Blade Runner that had nothing to do with Scott’s film or the Phillip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which it was based. For the record, Burroughs’s tale concerns a group of teenage smugglers, called Blade Runners, who provide banned surgical instruments to doctors in a fascistic future America ruled by secret police. Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg is published by Quirk, rrp $24.95.