William Burroughs, from Beat to punk

October 13, 1993|By Stephen Margulies | Stephen Margulies,Contributing Writer

Who is Mr. Cool? Who is the coolest dude of them all?

He dresses like a banker or an undertaker; he has often acted like a devil; and he talks and writes like Jonathan Swift on acid. William S. Burroughs' ability to survive hell and reach the age of 80 is so strange that some people think he has eaten of an obscure South American plant that guarantees immortality. Wearing the "used skin" of an ex-junkie, he sometimes resembles a zombie; but he has done the tango on a video with rock star Laurie Anderson.

Perhaps the most obscenely extreme novelist ever to publish, Mr. Burroughs is also a painter and film-maker and occasionally appears in punkish movies. His ironically lugubrious skeletal frame was paradoxically the liveliest thing in Gus Van Sant's film "Drugstore Cowboy," and his insidiously flat Midwestern drawl has been curiously effective on several records. The oldest member of the Beat generation, he was the mentor of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and now -- somewhat involuntarily -- performs a similar function for many a punk rock group and "cyberpunk" novelist and film-maker.

Now residing a good deal of the time in the quiet town of Lawrence, Kansas -- not far from his birthplace in St. Louis -- Mr. Burroughs lives peacefully among his cats, guns and servant boys. But his celebrity extends to People magazine and assorted gun magazines.

It may even be that Mr. Burroughs is closer to the present Generation X than to the Flower Power generation, although the Beatles put him among their crowd of heroes on the famous cover of the "Sergeant Pepper" album. According to Barry Miles in "William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait," "Bill was never keen on the love-and-peace side of the sixties, and in an interview with Jeff Shiro said, 'The only way I'd like to see a policeman given a flower is in a flowerpot from a high window.' The punks could relate to that."

For better or for worse, William S. Burroughs has become an antidote to the pseudo-affluence of the Bush/Reagan era, just as he was an antidote to the repressive pseudo-normalcy of the Eisenhower era. What he offers Generation X is the desert-dry humor of total paranoia, perfect in its fantastic extremism.

In "The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-59," edited by Oliver Harris, we get many passages in which Mr. Burroughs blames a vast conspiracy for the difficulty in kicking his drug habit: "Next thing will be armies of telepathy-controlled zombies marching around . . . They aim to incarcerate all undesirables, that is anyone who does not function as an interchangeable part in their anti-human Social Economic set up. Repressive bureaucracy is a vast conspiracy against Life." Yet it is typical that Mr. Burroughs craves the very drug supposedly used by the U.S. Army's marching zombies -- yage, which was his own Holy Grail for many years.

A science fiction mentality, the ability to generate innumerable conspiracy theories, a tireless capacity for omni-sexual fantasy, triumphantly hilarious paranoia and perhaps even misogyny -- these elements have made the elderly William Burroughs more famous and "relevant" than ever before. Barry Miles' "portrait" and Oliver Harris' edition of the early letters have come out at the right time. Barry Miles' critical biography is useful without being profound. On the other hand, the edition of Mr. Burroughs' letters is fascinating, harebrained, beautiful, hideous, profound, funny and scary.

The letters are proof that, whether one likes it or not, William S. Burroughs is a poet and a prophet as well as a criminal. That he is both angel and devil makes him a true citizen of our madly creative century. But "The Letters" are also proof that he is more human than he has admitted, at least in his ability to suffer and commiserate.

True, Mr. Burroughs now believes that our only salvation lies in being rescued from a doomed planet by Whitley Streiber's huge-eyed space aliens. But "The Letters" do not diminish Mr. Burroughs' weirdness -- they must make it clear that weirdness is a thoroughly human trait.

In a way, the main problem with Barry Miles' portrait of Mr. Burroughs is that it tends to diminish the weirdness while not delving very deep into the author's psyche. And the book certainly does not replace Ted Morgan's comprehensive "Literary Outlaw."

Mr. Miles does, of course, give us a run-through of Mr. Burroughs' extraordinary but toxic life and ideas. Grandson of the inventor of the adding machine, Mr. Burroughs inherited and retained a Midwestern macho love of guns and violent individualism. But his outraged disgust with upper-middle-class heterosexual values sent him into exile for several decades -- traveling though South America, North Africa and Europe.

While still in the United States, he absorbed a very American love of scams: economic, literary and scientific. A drug addict and petty thief, he also absorbed a love for Reichian analysis and sexual gimmicks, pseudo-science in general and cheap

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