The Long Journey and Many Masks of William S. Burroughs
By Jedd Beaudoin 29 January 2014
The year 2013 marks the centennial year of William S. Burroughs’ birth and this new biography from Barry Miles celebrates the long journey and many masks of the St. Louis-born writer. Miles has written about Burroughs before (including 1993’s El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait) and knew the writer during his lifetime. His knowledge of the man and his work is evident throughout these pages, and although Miles sometimes treats Burroughs with a gentle hand, he nevertheless allows the reader to arrive at their own conclusions about the Naked Lunch. In truth, anyone who puts down this book before the end will have a very different image of Burroughs than those who follow straight through to the beautifully rendered prose of its final pages.
Burroughs was, to say the least, a complex figure. He lived in Paris and London and New York but spent his final years in the tiny college town of Lawrence, Kansas. Those final years bear little resemblance to his days as a reluctant Beat in New York City, Tangier, and Chicago, at least in terms of the spirit of the man. Despite popular stories that Burroughs remained a drug addict to the end, and although he traded heroin for methadone by the time he moved to Kansas, he enjoyed cannabis basically until his final days and those who knew him in those final years would probably classify him as an epic drunk. He spent most of his time in Lawrence as a celibate man, tending to several cats that he overfed and babied and even wrote about in some late volumes. He had good manners, was a decent host, and waved goodbye to departing guests from his front steps. All of this of course is a far cry from the man who, earlier in his life, severed part of a digit during a psychotic episode.
Burroughs tended to charge forth where others might have stopped. Murdering his second wife, Joan Vollmer (albeit accidentally) in 1951 did nothing to curb his enthusiasm for firearms, nor did it bring him closer to the couple’s child, William Jr., who died in 1981 after an increasingly unhappy life. (The younger Burroughs was also a novelist, penning volumes such as Speed and Kentucky Ham.) Only drugs seemed to quiet Burroughs’ sex drive and his tendency to engage in acts that veered into the perverse. And although he often identified as homosexual, Miles makes it clear that his subject’s sexual orientation was never a simple matter, even to the man himself.
Miles takes us back to Burroughs’ childhood in St. Louis in order to show how the family, a wealthy one, thanks to his grandfather having inventing an adding machine, became divided early in William’s life. His mother clearly favored him over his brother Mortimer, and the relationship seems to have allowed William to form a dependence on his family that lasted well into his middle age. He was educated for some time at a private school in Los Alamos, New Mexico (the school became defunct when the US government chose the land as the site for its Manhattan Project) and very likely suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family caretaker.
Although he wrote a great deal as a young man there were lapses in his practice, years when he considered himself finished or incapable of creating more. His Harvard education brought him to the East Coast where he met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, and other members of the so-called Beat Generation. His relationship with Ginsberg was formed early and lasted until Ginsberg’s death; his friendship with Kerouac was always more troubled and he frequently accused the www.popmatters.com/item/ITEM/On the Road author (whom, we learn, was an excellent typist, something that no doubt will give more than a few readers a grin) of being too reliant on his mother.
Those relationships provide a solid backbone to this book, though they are not the only subject of the work. Burroughs’ wide travels after Vollmer’s death, including South America and eventually Tangier, where he lived off and on for many years, shooting heroin, carousing with underage boys and getting to know writer Paul Bowles. Some of Miles’ best writing comes during the passages dealing with Burroughs’ wanderings through South America, the prose sometimes calling to mind Graham Greene’s travelogues such as Journey Without Maps and The Lawless Roads.
Burroughs lived outside the US until 1974, clocking in time in both Paris and London (the latter city is where Burroughs and Miles first crossed paths). In London he rubbed shoulders with Paul McCartney and became increasingly fascinated with Scientology (to the point, Miles writes, that some found time spent with Burroughs nearly unbearable). In each of these new locations he found friends and continued to evolve as a writer, finding his famed cut up style and obsessively revising and re-revising texts along the way.
He returned to the US to find that a younger generation had embraced him and his work and by the early ‘80s, he found unlikely celebrity beside the likes of Patti Smith, members of Blondie, and others. His fortunes increased in that time, though as rent grew higher in the Big Apple he became increasingly disenchanted with the city, returning at last to the Midwest where befriended still a younger set and managed, at last, to find something that one might call stability as he remained in Lawrence for well over a decade, the longest he’d been anywhere since his youth.
He found painting late in life, acted in films such as www.popmatters.com/item/ITEM/Drugstore Cowboy, and met Kurt Cobain (“There’s something wrong with that boy,” Burroughs reportedly remarked, “he frowns for no reason.”) Burroughs entertained on a regular basis and continued to surprise himself and others with writing projects, often believing he had nothing more to say only to find himself writing one more book. He still had strange habits and beliefs, remaining obsessed with aliens until the end and frequently wondering at some length why people of lesser intelligence than his were often chosen by extraterrestrials.
Miles writes about all of this and more with clarity, a great ear for language and a great eye for detail. This won’t necessarily please fans looking for a blow-by-blow account of Burroughs’ working life (you can find that in Ted Morgan‘s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris’ William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination and of course, Miles’ previous volumes on the author, including William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible), but Call Me Burroughs is quite possibly the best biography written about the man to date.
Rating: [8 out of 10]