Some early reviewers spluttered in horror. The same year, Big Table , a Chicago literary magazine, printed an excerpt, and was barred from the mails by the U. Postal Service. Fears of suppression delayed a stateside publication of the book until , when Grove Press brought out an expanded and revised edition.
Or a nine-lived cat. Or a cancer. Those temerities and his disarmingly starchy public mien—he was ever the gent, dressed in suits, with patrician manners and a sepulchral, Missouri-bred and foreign-seasoned voice—assured him a celebrity status that is apt to flare anew whenever another cohort of properly disaffected young readers discovers him.
His namesake grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, perfected the adding machine and left his four children blocks of stock in what later became the Burroughs Corporation. His son Mortimer—the father of William and another, older son—sold his remaining share, shortly before the crash, for two hundred and seventy-six thousand dollars. Burroughs started writing at the age of eight, imitating adventure and crime stories.
He attended a John Dewey-influenced progressive elementary school in St. Louis and played on the banks of the nearby, sewage-polluted River des Peres. Burroughs was a brilliant student, graduating from Harvard with honors, in English, in He sojourned often in Europe; in Vienna, he briefly studied medicine and frequented the gay demimonde.
He had become aware at puberty of an attraction to boys, and had been so embarrassed by a diary he kept of a futile passion for a fellow-student that he destroyed it and stopped writing anything not school-required for several years.
Later, in psychoanalysis, he traced his sexual anxiety to a repressed memory: when he was four years old, his nanny forced him to perform oral sex on her boyfriend. After a short hitch in the Army, in , Burroughs received a psychiatric discharge. He then worked briefly as a private detective, in Chicago, where, however, he enjoyed his longest period of regular employment—nine months—as a pest exterminator.
The creation story of the Beats is by now literary boilerplate. Burroughs moved to New York in , along with David Kammerer, a childhood friend who had travelled with him in Europe, and Lucien Carr, an angelically handsome Columbia University student whom Kammerer was stalking.
Kerouac, who had dropped out of Columbia and served in the Navy, returned to the neighborhood in With Carr as the catalyst, and Burroughs, whom Kerouac goaded to resume writing, a charismatic presence, the Beat fellowship was complete. Burroughs and Vollmer became inseparable and, they believed, telepathic soul mates, but he continued to have sexual encounters with men.
In , he started on heroin. An uncle, Horace Burroughs, whom he idealized but never met, was a morphine addict who committed suicide in , when the drug was legally restricted. Vollmer favored Benzedrine. In , Vollmer became pregnant. Burroughs, who could be startlingly moralistic, abhorred abortion; and so a son, Billy, joined the family. Envisioning himself as a gentleman farmer, Burroughs had acquired a spread in East Texas, where he cultivated marijuana, though not very well.
For three years, he took drugs, drank, picked up boys, hosted friends, and cut a sorry figure as a father. It features terse, crackling reportage, with echoes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
He had contracted a lifelong mania for guns from duck-hunting excursions with his father, and was never unarmed if he could help it. He fired a pistol from about nine feet away. The bullet struck Vollmer in the forehead, at the hairline. She was twenty-eight. Released on bail, Burroughs might have faced trial had not Jurado, in a fit of road rage, shot a socially prominent young man and, when his victim died of septicemia, fled the country. Burroughs did the same, and a Mexican court convicted him in absentia of manslaughter, sentencing him to two years.
The heat and smoke caused Burroughs to ask to truncate the proceedings. Burroughs sent Billy to be raised by Laura and Mortimer, in St. Louis, and joined them, in , after they moved to Palm Beach, Florida.
He needs a motorboat to take him upriver:. Tomorrow the river will be higher. Its heroes include Hassan-i Sabbah, the historical leader of a sometimes homicidal sect in eleventh- and twelfth-century Persia. Most of the characters run to type: dissolute quasi-aristocratic friends, interchangeable boys, sycophants in steadily increasing numbers. Most prominent is Brion Gysin, a mediocre artist of calligraphic abstractions. Burroughs met him in Tangier, in , and bonded with him in Paris at a dump in the Latin Quarter, known as the Beat Hotel, whose motherly owner adored literary wanderers.
Gysin and Burroughs deemed each other clairvoyant geniuses. It flopped. These have been widely exhibited and sold. They are terrible. Burroughs had no visual equivalent of the second-nature formality that buoys even his most chaotic writing. Rockefeller and the Nazi Party. But Burroughs liked his own growing fame. He gave readings to full houses. What might you be like, had your father killed your mother and then abandoned you?
In , father and son reunited at the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, where Ginsberg and other poets had initiated a program in experimental writing, and where Burroughs was teaching, with crotchety flair. Billy, who had received a liver transplant for cirrhosis, engaged in spectacular self-destruction. Burroughs seemed to regret only that he had not sufficiently explained the Ugly Spirit to him.
The drugs help account for the hollowness of his voices, which jabber, joke, and rant like ghosts in a cave. He had no voice of his own, but a fantastic ear and verbal recall. I suspect that few readers have made it all the way through the cut-up novels, but anyone dipping into them may come away humming phrases.
His palpable influence on J. Ballard, William Gibson, and Kathy Acker is only the most obvious effect of the kind of inspiration that makes a young writer drop a book and grab a pen, wishing to emulate so sensational a sound. Burroughs, however, wages literary war not on perceptible real-world targets but against suggestions that anyone is responsible for anything.
Though never cruel in his personal conduct, he was, in principle, exasperated with values of constraint. When you have read Burroughs, at whatever length suffices for you, one flank of your imagination of human possibility will be covered for good and all.
Culture Des k.