Beat goes on
Dense Burroughs bio details drugs, tragedy
COINCIDING with what would have been his subject’s 100th birthday this year, Barry Miles’s latest biography takes a dense, detailed and fascinating look at the life of controversial beat-generation writer William S. Burroughs. Burroughs is probably best known for Naked Lunch, a non-linear novel based largely on events from his own life, including his addiction to heroin and time living in Tangier when the Moroccan city was an international zone in the 1950s. The book was notoriously banned in several countries due to obscenity, and after its release Burroughs became a prominent counterculture figure. Miles — who has written about Burroughs before, as well as fellow beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac — follows Burroughs’ life from his privileged childhood in St. Louis (his wealthy parents paid him an allowance for most of his life) through his career that took him around the world, to his death in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997 at the age of 83. The creation of Burroughs’ works is explored — most of his characters are based on people he met over the years, particularly seedier characters in the drug scene — but the real focus is on his personal life, notably his heavy drug use, and relationships with friends, colleagues and lovers. While Burroughs considered himself homosexual since the age of 13, he had a few female companions along the way, including two wives, the first of whom, a Jewish woman, he married to keep her from being forced to move back to Germany during the Second World War. “I was doing it to be a nice guy,” Burroughs says. But it was his second wife, Joan Vollmer, who turned out to be one of the most significant people in his life, though in a very tragic way. On Sept. 6, 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot Vollmer in what is described as a fatal “William Tell routine” during a heavy drinking session while living in Mexico City. With friends present, Burroughs placed a glass of liquor on Vollmer’s head and attempted to shoot it as a way of showing off his marksmanship. He missed. Burroughs was found guilty of homicide and was given a two-year sentence, which was suspended. Years later, Burroughs would claim that he never would have become a writer if it weren’t for Vollmer’s death, an event he said “motivated and formulated” his work. Miles challenges this, however, noting that Burroughs had a nearly complete draft of his first book, the mostly autobiographical Junky, by December 1950, eight months before the fatal shooting. Drugs were probably the biggest influence on Burroughs. His heroin habit was particularly bad, but he also took a lot of morphine, marijuana and alcohol. He dabbled in hallucinatory drugs, getting involved in a research project on magic mushrooms with LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary. He even spent months travelling through South America on a quest for a psychedelic drug called yage, a trip that led to the 1963 book The Yage Letters, which Burroughs co-wrote with Ginsberg. “Virtually all of Burroughs’ writing was done when he was high on something,” Miles writes. The author notes Burroughs was prone to visions as a child, which likely led to his fascination with altered states of consciousness. He later became interested in telepathy, hypnosis, and was briefly involved with the Church of Scientology, fascinated with the controversial organization’s auditing process. Miles notes that Burroughs often felt he was possessed by an “Ugly Spirit” that seemed to fuel his drug use. Burroughs’ addictions certainly didn’t slow him down. He wrote almost 20 novels and novellas, as well as numerous essays, short story collections and non-fiction books. He also explored spoken word, painting and photography. In the late 1980s he co-wrote an opera with gravel-throated singer Tom Waits. He even did some acting, being praised for his role in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. After the release of that film and Canadian director David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of Naked Lunch, Burroughs found a new level of fame, which led to collaborations with popular musicians including U2 and Kurt Cobain in his later years. Sadly, Burroughs was haunted by guilt for years, not just for the killing of Joan, but for the effect that and his absent parenting had on his only son, Billy Burroughs, who was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death. Billy died of liver failure at the age of 33, a result of alcoholism. “All his life Billy had always wanted to be loved and respected by his father and his drinking and drug taking were all pathetic attempts to be cool, to show Bill that he was continuing the bohemian tradition,” Miles writes. Though at times tragic, Call Me Burroughs is often entertaining. Through meticulous research, including interviews and archived materials, Miles shows us Burroughs as a true one-of-a-kind figure, whose stories and characters had an influence that spread far beyond literary circles.
Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.