Queer to think of him now spending the last decade of his life living in Lawrence, Kan., meticulously dressed in his undertaker suit and gray fedora, a cross between T.S. Eliot and Dashiell Hammett, poking through the cat food at the local Kroger's, then aiming his Smith & Wesson at backyard canvases in the pursuit of instant "shotgun art," winding up reading H.P. Lovecraft by night lamp while, in the dry distance, a Santa Fe railroad conductor blows his midnight whistle on the lonesome way from Wichita to Topeka.
It's so hard to imagine because ever since Naked Lunch (Grove Press, 290 pages, $24), first published in Paris, reached the United States in 1963 with what Newsweek called "a heavier burden of literary laudations than any piece of fiction since Ulysses" -- its author, William S. Burroughs, had been ordained America's most incendiary artist, a deadpan cubist who used razor-honed words to paint the zeitgeist of postmodernist despair.
A creator of grim fairy tales for adults, Burroughs spoke to our nightmare fears and, still worse, to our nightmare longings. Over the decades, the avant-garde grew enchanted with the nonconformity of this Harvard-educated renegade and grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine, whose family was listed in the St. Louis social register. Thus was hatched the myth of a rich kid with pedigree and a Harvard degree who squandered it all for a syringe of morphine and the life of a Times Square hustler.
In such dream-state works as Naked Lunch, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, Burroughs explored homosexuality, sadism, masochism, authoritarian control, street junkies, greedheads, whorehouse freaks, callous con men, corrupt scientists, Egyptologists, money manipulators and just plain wild boys -- all with the same brutal, fierce and exact satirical aplomb. Nelson Algren may have written The Man With the Golden Arm, but Burroughs was our guide through the highly personalized hell of a man who knew the needle firsthand.
"Junk is the ideal product," he wrote in Naked Lunch, "the ultimate merchandise. No sales necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy. ... The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client."
His philosophy was dubbed "the algebra of need," the belief that human beings were jaundiced animals on the lowest rung of the great ladder: Wall Streeters who crave money, movie stars who crave fame, politicians who crave power and junkies who crave a fix. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Junky (Penguin Books, 166 pages, $14), and, by happenstance, it also coincides with the 40th anniversary of Naked Lunch. To commemorate, Penguin Books and Grove Press have brought out new "definitive" anniversary editions, complete with restored text, glowing introductions, useful appendices and careful annotation.
Reading these new versions back-to-back is a bracing experience, like shaving with a blowtorch while racing down a one-way street.
In both Naked Lunch and Junky, we follow the main characters through various landscapes: of the United States, Mexico; of addiction; of mind. And, as these new editions make clear, the best way to appreciate Burroughs' vision is on his own terms: as an anthropologist of the drug culture and one of our greatest journalists of both narcotics and criminality, detailing, with extreme precision, the practices of dealers, cops and ward psychiatrists.
True enough. But if it were that simple we would honor Burroughs as we do George Orwell for Down and Out in Paris and London or Jack London for The Road, as a literary detective living in vagabond squalor for the sake of reporting an accurate story. Burroughs was also a dark vaudevillian who, in fact, lampooned that tradition. And, more than any other postwar wordsmith, he bridged generations; his popularity in the youth culture is greater now than during the heady days of the Beats.
Before he committed suicide, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain made the mandatory rock 'n' roll pilgrimage to the quiet college town of Lawrence. When punk anarchist Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols sang the Frank Sinatra hit "My Way," it was pure Burroughs. When rocker Patti Smith sneered, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," that was pure Burroughs, too. He coined the term "heavy metal." Rock bands such as Insect Trust, Steely Dan, Husker Du and Throbbing Gristle took their names from Naked Lunch (which itself was named by Jack Kerouac). Burroughs was the elder statesman of the Beats and the granddaddy of punk.