Beat goes on

Dense Bur­roughs bio de­tails drugs, tragedy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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.

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