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Cursed From Birth by David Ohle

David Sterritt

He fills an entire page with the single word "pain," adding at the very end, "and in hospitals you learn to, Hate, Hate ..."

Cursed From Birth

Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Subtitle: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr.
Author: David Ohle
Price: $13.95
Length: 256
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1933368381
US publication date: 2006-10

Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr., is a long title, but it gets to the point. The only begotten son of Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs had a very short life, and unhappiness is a mild word to describe his prevailing disposition during the 34 years he spent on this planet.

Reading this fascinating book, which combines his memoirs with other material, I often wondered why he stuck around that long. He thought about suicide a lot, making lists of the methods he might use -- shooting himself or "old-time hanging + jumping" held the most appeal -- but in the end he waited for the death he knew was inevitable anyway. He'd had a liver transplant after years of drinking and drug abuse, and his prognosis for survival was only a few years, even if all went well.

That's depressing enough, and all did not go well: His surgical wound didn't heal properly, postoperative arthritis made it hard to walk, and medication turned his mind (already none too stable) into a morass of mood swings, paranoia, and delusions. The title of the present book comes from a letter he wrote to his father on one of his darker days in 1979, about 16 months before he died. He signed it "Failure" and appended the explanatory phrase, "Your cursed-from-birth offspring."

It's possible that Burroughs Jr. was literally cursed from birth, since he sprang from the none-too-tidy womb of Joan Vollmer, a hard drinker and Benzedrine abuser. "Billy's metabolism may have been conditioned by her before he was born," says Burroughs Sr. in one of the book's documents.

If not from birth, Burroughs Jr. could have dated the curse from four years old -- his age when Burroughs Sr. put a bullet through Vollmer's brain during a drunken William Tell routine. In some of his letters, Burroughs Jr. is wistful about her, asking his dad politely for information or a photo. He also reveals explosive rage about her death, even switching into the first person as if he were the one who killed her.

And sometimes he turns the anger against Vollmer herself, as when he learns from Jack Kerouac's novel, Visions of Cody, that she was an alcoholic who took "massive amounts of speed" while pregnant with him. "Tarnished image dept," he sardonically writes, admitting that he always imagined her "dressed in calico and ... the purest of the family" but now sees "the reality" as "an emaciated black-toothed (some of them gone) hag, nagging at my father ... in incomprehensible speed/drunk talk."

Burroughs Jr. would probably have committed suicide if he'd always felt as miserable and wrathful as he does in many of his letters. But judging from the book David Ohle has put together, at least three considerations kept him plugging along. One was fear of dying any sooner than he had to. Another was his deep desire to become a successful writer like his dad. The third was the satisfaction he gained from ordinary life when his mercurial mind wasn't sabotaging itself. He enjoyed sex, food, and other commonplace comforts, and he daydreams about them in his writing even when he's too penniless and addled for much (or any) of them to come his way.

Burroughs Jr. did find some success as a writer, publishing two novels (Speed and Kentucky Ham) and articles in various magazines. In his final years he worked intermittently on a life story called Prakriti Junction, and after his death Burroughs Sr. invited Ohle to edit it for publication.

Instead of the unfinished autobiography Ohle expected, the manuscript turned out to be just 60 typed pages of sketchy material, put down by someone obviously "too sick, too prednisone-frenzied, too drunk, too drugged (or drug deprived) to undertake a coherent, sustained writing project." Looking further into the archive, though, Ohle found dozens of handwritten notebooks and other fragments, hundreds of letters, assorted legal and medical documents, and recollections of Burroughs Jr. by people who knew him. Cursed From Birth contains material from all of these sources, edited into roughly chronological order.

Burroughs Jr. loved all the Beat writers, feeling his sensibility was similar despite his younger age. His own writing is looser and more easy-going than his father's, but the old guy's style clearly influenced him -- not the cut-up novels like Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, but the more-or-less straightforward prose of Junky and, even more, late works like Cities of the Red Night and its sequels. Recounting a hitchhiking mishap in a letter, he'll toss out a passage like, "I donwanna be thrown 100 yds + get impaled by the thigh on a phone pole, holding my intestines out in front of my face. Be hard to make my peace." That is indeed the Burroughs touch.

The book sheds revealing light on various people other than Burroughs Jr., too, from his long-suffering wife and girlfriend to Allen Ginsberg, who tried unsuccessfully to have sex with him. And who would have guessed that Burroughs Sr. was pro-life, saying abortion is "murder" and refusing to consider it when Vollmer made the suggestion!

But nobody here is as compelling as the main character. This is partly because his plight is so terrible, and partly because he keeps trying so hard to survive, hideous days and rotten luck notwithstanding. He fills an entire page with the single word "pain", adding at the very end, "and in hospitals you learn to, Hate, Hate ..." Yet just one page earlier he was musing over how funny it was to have "a profound discussion of ... waxed and unwaxed dental floss" with the same Allen Ginsberg venerated by fans for his "cosmic" thoughts.

"Why do I keep this journal?" asks Burroughs Jr. at one point. Then he continues, "Don't ask my opinion, you long-haired low-browed, flint-hurling aborigine -- for the person who holds these pages in their hands this moment just feel sad, just feel sad."

I did. And grateful, too, for such an engrossing read.

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