The New York Times, Feb 21, 2014


King of Cool

‘Call Me Burroughs,’ by Barry Miles


William S. Burroughs “didn’t say anything for shock value,” his student Sam Kashner once observed. “Hislife had shock value.”

Born to a prominent St. Louis family in 1914, Burroughs linked his lineage at every point to the fatal plotlines of American hubris and power. His mother’s family had been slave owners in the antebellum South; his paternal grandfather invented the adding machine, a building block in the embryonic military-­industrial-media complex. His uncle Ivy Lee, a pioneer of public relations, counted Hitler’s regime among his preferred clients. Burroughs himself spent time in Vienna in the 1930s and learned a lesson he never forgot: Everything Hitler did was legal. Laws could spur, not deter, the blackest of crimes. To top it off, young Bill had also attended the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, which in 1943 would be co-opted for the Manhattan Project. “The sick soul, sick unto death, of the atomic age” became his great subject.

Burroughs graduated from Harvard in 1936, and never again did anything that was expected of him. Thanks to the allowance his parents provided until he was 50, his short-term jobs (notably as a detective and an exterminator) doubled as research into his real occupations: gay sex, hard drugs and avant-garde writing.

In “Call Me Burroughs,” his authoritative new biography, Barry Miles avoids unduly romanticizing Burroughs’s outlaw status. Even Burroughs, the proud progenitor of what some called gay pornography, was not immune to the homophobia he defied; as late as 1957, he referred to homosexuality as a “horrible sickness,” though he had no serious wish for a cure. Nor, wisely, does Miles minimize the depth and tenacity of Burroughs’s addictions. He wrote all of his books under the influence of drugs — principally heroin, alcohol, marijuana and methadone. Miles’s book is emphatically not, however, the familiar story of a gifted writer’s substance-­soaked decline, probably for the simple reason that Burroughs’s genius for surreal black comedy tempered with hard, practical thought never deserted him. Though he chronicled all its horrors and tried various treatment programs, Burroughs in some real sense chose addiction; it was his entree to the street slang and chronic desperation of the noir lifers who occupied his fiction from “Junkie” (1953) on. When he died at 83 in 1997, his friends reportedly tucked some heroin and marijuana along with his .38 into his coffin.

Hailed after the publication of “Naked Lunch” in 1959 as an avatar of postmodernism, Burroughs publicly matched wits with Michel Foucault and Jean Genet, dourly graced the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and managed his reputation as the cryptic “godfather of punk.” The best way to get to the top in America, he freely acknowledged, is to be born there. If few of his honors were sought, none were refused. “Keep your snout in the public trough,” was a Burroughs maxim. It’s a prankster’s planet, and Burroughs was in on the joke.

Miles also charts in detail how dependent this singular iconoclast was on the inspiration and editorial skills of his friends. Without Allen Ginsberg, who spent 10 weeks establishing some kind of order on the pages of “Naked Lunch,” scattered around the floor of Burroughs’s room in Tangier; without the painter Brion Gysin, who originated the “cut-up” method; and without James Grauerholz, Burroughs’s beloved companion, editor and literary executor, we wouldn’t have any of his major works in their present form. Though the first and last drafts were always his, collaboration rescued Burroughs from the terrors and falsities of single authorship, giving him access to kindred minds with different resources. He knew they made his work, as Ginsberg put it, more “decipherable.”

Appropriately, this biography, as Miles is at pains to tell us, is itself a collaboration, resting on the monumental research Grauerholz did for a biography he abandoned in 2010, and the extensive taped interviews Ted Morgan conducted for “Literary Outlaw,” his pioneering 1988 biography. Miles himself knew Burroughs for many years; it was he who discovered the lost manuscripts of “Queer” (1985) and “Interzone” (1989), and he has written a number of books on the Beat Generation, including a fine biography of Ginsberg and an early study of Burroughs. Although he occasionally simplifies Burroughs’s story by superficial moralizing — endorsing at one point a psychiatrist’s diagnosis of Burroughs in 1949 as a “grossly immature” mama’s boy, terms then virtually synonymous, as Miles surely knows, with “homosexual” — his access and wealth of detail will make this the go-to biography for many years to come.

In the most terrible and formative event of his adult life, on Sept. 6, 1951, Burroughs, a keen marksman, shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan, in a drunken game of William Tell. Burroughs never deceived Joan; she knew he preferred the “real uncut boy stuff,” but her patience seemed unhappily “infinite” (in her word), and his devotion was real and lifelong. Burroughs served only two weeks in jail; their son, Billy, then 4, was raised by Burroughs’s parents. Billy drank himself to death in 1981 at 33. Miles, like Billy himself, puts the blame squarely on Burroughs: “By killing the boy’s mother he had destroyed Billy’s life.” Delicate, funny and uncannily intelligent, Joan was also an alcoholic and drug addict who left Billy and Julie (her daughter by an earlier relationship) unbathed and without underwear or shoes; she toilet-trained them with the same Revere Ware she used for cooking. She was no more a fit parent than Burroughs. The crime, if there was one in this tragedy, was Burroughs’s veto of the abortion option. Ginsberg thought Joan used Bill to commit suicide, an opinion Burroughs never shared. All his intimate relationships had been “strained and off-key,” he told Ted Morgan, his “affection denied when needed.”

Miles rightly finds Burroughs’s enduring literary significance in his high-wire reinvention of the picaresque. Abandoning the narrative connections by which the traditional novel grants its protagonist a coherence denied by life, he fashioned an art of paranoia and parody, half high-­modernist irony, half sci-fi cartoon, at once fantastic and literal. The cut-up method he adopted in the 1960s — taking scissors to chosen texts and juxtaposing the fragments into new sequences — was part of his decoding operation. Magic must counter magic to reroute power. At a literary conference in 1962, Burroughs told the audience he had once caused a plane crash by willing it. “Are you serious?” another writer asked incredulously. “Perfectly,” Burroughs answered with characteristic sangfroid. He never doubted that the sources of information on which his opponents relied were far more suspect than his own. “You are not paid off to be quiet about what you know,” he said. “You are paid not to find it out.”

Though many of his fans were young, Burroughs was 45 when “Naked Lunch” was published; he finished his great trilogy, “Cities of the Red Night” (1981), “The Place of Dead Roads” (1984) and “The Western Lands” (1987), at 73, and he brought old age, impeccably tailored, with him into the spotlight. The most chic old man of letters since Tiresias roamed the Wasteland, Burroughs’s Wise Man persona mocked and countered the reputed “wise men” in Washington steering the country on what he considered its “suicidal and psychotic” course. For all its futurist élan, Burroughs’s work constitutes an extended elegy for a time before bureaucracy strangled the frontier, before rivers became poisoned sewers, before Melancholy Baby died “from an overdose of time.” In 1981, he moved back to the Midwest to be near Grauerholz, and discovered that Kansas, unlike Byzantium, was a country for old men. “Sky in all directions,” he noted in 1995, a fit home for a cosmonaut of terrestrial and extraterrestrial space.


A Life

By Barry Miles

Illustrated. 718 pp. Twelve. $32.

Ann Douglas teaches a course on the Beat Generation at Columbia University.