Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Junky Goes to Lunch - William S. Burroughs

Things went on like this for several weeks. One by one, Nick's contacts located me. They were tired of scoring through Nick and having him steal the head of their caps. What a crew! Mooches, fags, four-flushers, stool pigeons, bums--unwilling to work, unable to steal, always short of money, always whining for credit. In the whole lot there was not one who wouldn't wilt and spill as soon as someone belted him in the mouth and said "Where did you get it?" - Junky

Black Cat Grove Edition

I first read Naked Lunch by William Burroughs over 30 years ago, back when I was in college and on a mid-century Beat kick thanks to one of my English professor's expertise in the field. I'd seen the book on shelves of fellow English Lit students as well. I'll just say it, English Lit majors, along with Art majors, have the best parties. But I digress. I'd read Naked Lunch first, years before getting around to reading Junky. I like Naked Lunch, but there's no way to summarize it in any meaningful way. It's something that you'll read and either appreciate it or not. Junky is a far different reading experience. Junky is a laconic, almost hard-boiled tour of a drug addict's day to day life as experienced in middle 20th century America. Junky is the key to  opening the door to Naked Lunch. Both books should be read together. Junky illuminates Naked Lunch,

Perhaps he stores something in his body--a substance to prolong life--of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialized as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. 

There is somewhat of a linear structure, a loose plot of sorts, on which you can hitch a ride with in Junky. Our narrator, Bill Lee, lives of a small trust he inherits from a somewhat wealthy family (as did Burroughs) which provides him just enough to live on without having to succumb to any 9 to 5 job. He hooks up with a couple hoodlums trying to move guns and morphine. For no good reason, he tries the morphine.

Morphine hits the back of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water. 

A taste for the stuff is awakened. The novel follows Bill Lee and a large assortment of characters as they roam the city feeding their appetites for junk. We're given a primer in the way a junky operates. We learn how doctors (croakers) are approached for scripts, how junk is moved, ingested, and kicked. It's also a travelogue of sorts as Bill Lee moves from New York to New Orleans, through Texas and down to Mexico City. We're provided a glossary of mid-century jive-talk, a street level tour of Junk hangouts and a breakdown of the varieties of junk and their effects. Bill Lee navigates the novel with a plainspoken voice, telling you the score,

But not so much with Naked Lunch.

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up the devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station...

And with this opening line we're "vaulting the turnstile" with Bill Lee, on the lam from the fresh faced squares in the fuzz out to get him, spiraling down a paranoid hallucinogenic recap of Junky as he goes down to Mexico City, where Lupita "sits like an Aztec Earth-goddess doling out her little papers of lousy shit." From Mexico, Lee is assigned to a sadist, Dr. Benway, who called the shots in a totalitarian country named Annexia. Annexia seems to have a dark reflection of America in her sights, at least as depicted by its rat race of of hopeless bureaucracy and imprisonment. But time and place shifts to Interzone.

Naked Lunch is Junky turned inside out. It's the stuff between the lines of that earlier novel. It's the paranoia and nightmares, the stream of conscious ramblings of the angry addict as writer, the scribbled notes, the hunger for junk, vignettes and dialog. Burroughs pulled it all together with help from Jack Kerouac who gave him the title. It's much like Kerouac's other road novel Visions of Cody that turned On the Road inside out. You dig it or you don't,

Now, 50 plus years after it's controversial full U.S. publication (the year of my birth) we can still read Naked Lunch and admire its place in time. It shocks and humors and disgusts us. I don't imagine today's youth is interested in books like these anymore. There is too much self absorption to compete. Not that Burrough's and the rest of the Beats weren't self absorbed, to be sure they were. But for a time, they had a voice and it screamed out in pages of books like these. And some people read them, They're still in print, still published, but unappreciated today. They're like the old queen of the ball, tired, wrinkled and cynical, who sits against the wall next to a decanter of amber liquid watching the crowd around her imitating dance moves they think they've invented.

1 comment:

  1. Your last paragraph is pure gold! I've had similar thoughts about Burroughs appreciation today. It's been some years since I really read him--early 90s for me around the time Cronenberg's movie came out--but I remember I was totally into NAKED LUNCH... once I realized I didn't need to read it as a "novel." Reading JUNKY around the same time is, as you note, quite illuminating. Now I need to find my old Black Cat paperback!