A vivid new biography of the beat wild man recasts him as a vitriolic vaudeville performer haunted by the killing of his wife
“Call me Burroughs”? I can’t imagine William S Burroughs saying anything so anodyne as he extended his bony hand to be shaken. Those who knew him called him other things. During his youth he was likened to a mean, sneaky sheep-killing dog and a walking corpse. In later life he was said to possess an “undertaker look” of woebegone solemnity, and in a film made in Paris in the 1960s he was typecast as Death. During his druggy ramblings in South America, the natives, taking note of his emaciation and palsied pallor, nicknamed him “el hombre invisible”. That was his favourite role: he believed that the low-grade violet rays he emitted enabled him to blot himself out, awarding him an out-of-body experience. Barry Miles has bravely set about writing the life of someone who was less a human being than a ghoul, a wraith, or – at his most substantial – a shadow.
Helped by his posthumous, necromantic manner, Burroughs trafficked with occult powers, and employed art as a kind of telepathic murder. People who offended him were transferred to his books to be killed off: in one of his novels he shot a poisoned dart into a landlady who evicted him after his friends tore up the Gideon Bible she had left in his room and peed out of the window. Burroughs’s negative charisma was so compelling that he was able to close down a coffee bar in Soho whose Greek owners “gave him sass” and served him toxic cheesecake. All it took was some black magic performed with a camera and a tape recorder, which “altered consciousness and subverted the space-time continuum”, sending the superstitious Greeks into retreat.
Burroughs’s evil eye was supplemented with a terrorist’s arsenal. He began firing guns at the age of eight, toted pistols and semi-automatics everywhere, and as an extra precaution acquired a cane with a sword concealed inside it and another cane that fired cartridges. His sport in the South American jungle was blasting innocent melons to a pulp, and in Mexico City he tried out a novel mode of pest control, stringing up live mice and blowing their little heads off. As a child, it was not enough for him to swat a fly: he used his chemistry set to make ammonium iodide, hurled the powder at the buzzing insects, then cheered as they “exploded in little puffs of purple vapour”.
The determining event in Burroughs’s life was just such an act of carnage. At a party in 1951, he played a William Tell game with his wife Joan, who, while tanked up on tequila, balanced a glass on her head so he could fire at it. His aim was wonky, the bullet entered her temple, and she died. Burroughs had already experimented with other careers – he farmed cotton in Texas, worked as a private eye spying on adulterers in Chicago, rolled drunks on the New York subway, and had grandiose dreams of dynamiting an armoured truck and absconding with a fortune – but it was his killing of his wife, in Miles’s opinion, that turned him into a writer, afflicting him with a sense of guilt that made him examine the contents of his haunted head. Sympathisers assured him that Joan’s death was not his fault. Brion Gysin declared that the gun was fired by an ugly spirit; Allen Ginsberg misogynistically proposed that Joan willed Burroughs to shoot her, which meant that she committed suicide. The culprit, however, accepted that he was under the control of a “completely malevolent force”, and the novels he wrote after Naked Lunch were about his struggles with this indwelling demon.
Luckily, Miles’s biography is more than a record of damage, dementia and the systematic derangement of the senses – though it is all that, as well as providing enough details about its gay subject’s sexual tastes to satisfy the most prurient, along with an exact calibration of his penis size (unimpressive). Burroughs appears here warts and all, and the warts, I can reveal, are rectal. But Miles can’t suppress his affection and admiration for this cranky, cadaverous ogre.
Burroughs had, at the very least, extraordinary powers of recuperation. He was self-destructive, even self-mutilating: when an adolescent infatuation with a schoolmate turned sour he chopped off the top of his little finger with poultry shears intended for carving the Thanksgiving turkey. In Bogotá, where he was searching for a hallucinogenic vine that guaranteed the ultimate trip, a medicine man overdosed him with a potion that had killed another seeker a month before. Burroughs spent four hours in a delirium, convulsed by nausea and vomiting at 10-minute intervals. He then found his Nembutal, crawled to a stream so he could swill the tablets down, and passed out. “The next morning,” Miles reports, “feeling fine, he walked back to town.”
As a co-founder of the hippie newspaper International Times, Miles got to know Burroughs while he was living in London in the 1960s, and the most endearing parts of the biography concern this English phase of Burroughs’s itinerant life. He hired a succession of semi-criminal Dilly boys for sex, but also kept company with effete, eccentric aristocrats and felt entirely at home in this genteel culture. One of his early heroes was the snobbish dandy Beau Brummel, and Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, impressed by the shyness and good manners that alternated with his seismic spasms of violence, likened him to the winsome blue boy in Gainsborough’s painting. Another of his models, whom he impersonated when wearing drag, was Dame Edith Sitwell, a “sinister old lesbian”. He also bore a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, who shared his fondness for injecting cocaine. Friends were amused by his anglo affectations: he shopped at Fortnum & Mason, ate at Rules, where he ostentatiously tipped the carver, smoked Senior Service fags, and after swallowing balls of raw black opium smuggled in from Thailand always insisted on a nice cup of Earl Grey tea as a chaser.
Miles acknowledges the savagery of Burroughs, whose “cut-up” method of collaging texts was applied to his personal relationships: he once remorselessly cut up his old friend Ginsberg, shredding him with his tongue not a blade. But this book is a corrective to earlier, more freakish accounts, and it made me wonder whether Burroughs was less a writer than a performer, adept at transforming his kinks into black comedy. His narratives derive from “routines” that he tried out on friends, elaborating anecdotes into arias of obscenity and outrage like Dame Edna at her most rampant. He needed “receivers”, not readers but an audience whose responses he could hear and see, and as Miles points out he treated Naked Lunch as a set of free-associating vaudeville turns, which in later years he hilariously acted out on his reading tours.
Paul Bowles, who knew Burroughs during his years in Tangier, said of him: “He is always humorous, even at his most vitriolic,” and brilliantly defined him – referring to a homespun comedian from the heartland, beloved in the 1930s – as “a sophisticated Will Rogers”. It’s odd but agreeable to think of the depraved and murderous Burroughs as funny not fiendish. Thanks to Miles, the undead old devil here enjoys the last laugh.