When I was 16-years-old my parents took me on a road trip into Mexico over the winter holidays. We drove from our home in Northern California down into Arizona, across the blasted, gorgeous deserts of Sonora, south to the coastal city of Mazatlan, and finally to Puerto Vallarta, where we planned on spending several weeks. My older brother was away at college and he flew to Puerto Vallarta to meet us.
When the time came for us to start the long trip home I had run out of reading material, so I asked my older brother if he had any good books that he could lend to me. He looked at me appraisingly for a moment before rummaging around in his bag and producing a bright yellow book. He handed it to me without comment. The cover of the book read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
During the long drive across Northern Mexico I was swallowed up by visions of hanging, sadism, and desires so virulent that they consumed their subjects. I ate of the black meat and frolicked in Hassan’s Rumpus Room. There were creatures so foul and contorted that I could not help but recognize them as the agents of control I saw all around me, but did not have the words or the maturity to name. This obscene, haunting, beautiful fever dream of a novel got inside my head in a way no book had done before, and very few have done since. Burroughs infected me with his Word Virus and I was never the same again.
I tried to describe this book to my friends, this book that was like a grimoire from an H.P. Lovecraft story that, once it has been read, cannot be unread. But what can one say about Naked Lunch? I have read everything Burroughs wrote since, sometimes many times over, but I still don’t have the words to describe to someone who has never delved into Burroughs’ word horde the sheer hallucinatory power of his imagery and the disturbing insight of his ideas.
In his new biography of Burroughs, Barry Miles has the formidable task of telling the tale of Burroughs’ long, strange, and often sad life. Call Me Burroughs: A Life is a detailed, comprehensive biography. Miles digs deeply into Burroughs’ Saint Louis childhood in the teens and ’20s, offering numerous corrections and/or corroborations on Burroughs’ own accounts of this period. The pre-War Midwest haunts Burroughs’ later work and it’s particularly satisfying for those of us familiar with Burroughs work to obtain a clear picture of a time in Burroughs’ life that continues as a thread of nostalgia in his writing.
A few weeks before Call Me Burroughs: A Life showed up on my doorstep, the NPR radio program, This American Life, rebroadcast an earlier BBC documentary about Burroughs. In his introduction to the BBC broadcast, host Ira Glass explained that he has never been a fan of William Burroughs; that he found his image and the mythology that surrounded his back-story off-putting. Glass doesn’t say whether or not he has actually read one of Burroughs books; rather, his complaint focuses on his public image and personal reputation as the high priest of the junkies.
Somewhat perplexingly, the documentary then goes on to focus almost entirely on Burroughs’ image and personal reputation. In one sense I agree with Glass; Burroughs’ public image has often obscured his work and to some, given an impression that opiate addiction is somehow glamorized in Burroughs’ novels. However, Burroughs was one of the most gifted and iconoclastic American writers of the 20th century. His works can be difficult, experiential, and they do not offer comforting answers about the human condition.
So with this in mind, do we really need another Burroughs biography? Hasn’t Burroughs’ life story distracted from his work enough? Is Call Me Burroughs: A Life a good place to start for those readers unfamiliar with Burroughs’ work? If you have not read any of Burroughs novels yet, I recommend that you find a quiet, solitary place to read and immerse yourself in Naked Lunch, or The Wild Boys, or Cities of the Red Night, before you turn to this fascinating biography which humanizes this widely misunderstood writer.
Miles presents us with a problematic, contradictory, eccentric subject who made many very serious mistakes in his life. Most famously, Burroughs killed his wife in a drunken stunt gone awry. His relationships with the young men he slept with often seem exploitative. His attitudes towards women throughout much of his life were often crassly misogynistic. I will not waste any further time listing Burroughs’ many character flaws and personal shortcomings; his detractors have too often used these aspects of his biography to dismiss his work. Do great artists have to be good people? Can someone who has made truly dreadful mistakes in their life ever be considered a good person? Does great writing need to be nice?
Burroughs’ work is often not nice at all. It’s frequently hilarious, fun, and sometimes deeply humane, but at other times it’s deeply pessimistic and even misanthropic. Burroughs saw in himself an entity he called The Ugly Spirit. He described this entity as an external force; a possessing demon of some kind that provoked cruelty and self-destruction. To what extent Burroughs literally believed that he was possessed by the Ugly Spirit is not very important; the idea of the Ugly Spirit is a metaphor that runs throughout Burroughs’ work and his perceptions of human behavior.
Michele Foucault (whose thinking shows many striking parallels with Burroughs’) articulated perhaps more succinctly than Burroughs ever did the meaning behind the metaphor of the Ugly Spirit in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus : “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” Burroughs’ work calls out that inner fascism and exposes it in all its grotesque obscenity.
Call Me Burroughs: A Life charts Burroughs’ thought, work, and personal life in great detail. We read of Burroughs’ hobnobbing with celebrities and shooting smack in innumerable dingy rooming houses, yes. However, what makes Call Me Burroughs: A Life a worthwhile read is that it depicts a complicated human being and visionary artist who has too often been dehumanized and made one-dimensional. Indeed, Burroughs was much more than the king of the junkies, a notable member of the Beats generation, or some writer whose work Kurt Cobain liked.