Book Review

‘Call me Burroughs, A Life’ doesn’t skimp on Burroughs’ dark side

Updated: 2014-01-26T03:03:52Z


Special to The Star

He took a Harvard class taught by T.S. Eliot, participated in the groundbreaking Kinsey study on human sexuality, wrote some of the Beat Generation’s formative texts, was pictured on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and, as an old-timer living in Lawrence, collaborated with Kurt Cobain and other young artists who regarded him as a sage of the avant-garde.

William Burroughs’ life was an epic tale — a tale with some disturbing chapters.

Barry Miles’ comprehensive new biography is a celebration of Burroughs’ creative achievements and influence. It’s also a portrait of a man who was capable of shocking — and on one infamous occasion, deadly — acts of carelessness and cruelty.

In “Call Me Burroughs,” Miles offers a hearty appreciation for the once-notorious “Naked Lunch” and an entertaining look at the tortured relationships Burroughs forged with fellow Beats like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (though Burroughs’ parents “paid him an allowance until he was fifty years old,” Miles writes, he complained that Kerouac was a hopeless mama’s boy).

Miles also spends many pages following the peripatetic novelist on his extended journeys through North and South America, Europe and North Africa.

In Paris he did time at the storied Beat Hotel (a monthly fee of $26 provided him with a mattress stuffed with straw and, more important for Burroughs, a lifelong connoisseur of mind-altering substances, access to plenty of drugs). In Morocco he struck up friendships with “The Sheltering Sky” author Paul Bowles and other American emigres. And in New York City, he mixed with thieves and hustlers, cultivating an affinity for outlaw culture that would be felt in his work for decades.

With the 100th anniversary of Burroughs’ birth set to arrive on Feb. 5, Miles argues that novels like “Naked Lunch” and “Junky” are particularly timely. He says that Burroughs’ willingness to offend polite society with vivid depictions of sex and drug use makes him, almost 17 years after his death, a perennial First Amendment hero.

“Burroughs’ work,” he writes, “far from being dated, is more relevant now than ever in the fight for freedom of thought as governments increase electronic surveillance of their citizens, restrict freedom of speech, and the huge global corporations take over the planet.”

Perhaps. But if “Call Me Burroughs” is a testament to his artistic significance, it’s also a catalog of Burroughs’ penchant for antisocial behavior.

In 1951, he shot his wife, Joan, killing her by accident, according to Burroughs and others who were there; the couple were drinking with friends and their “William Tell act” — Joan placed a glass atop her head, and Burroughs tried to blast it with a handgun — went horribly wrong.

Burroughs got the benefit of the doubt for his role in that tragedy. On other unfortunate occasions, however, his actions were willfully alienating. We read of his relationships with young prostitutes — “My latest number is Spanish, 16,” Burroughs, then 42, wrote in a letter to Ginsberg — and the glee he took in describing how he paid to watch impoverished Moroccan boys perform in a graphic sex show. He derided Tangier’s Arabs as “just a gabby, gossipy, simpleminded, lazy crew of citizens.”

Per Miles, here’s a snapshot of Burroughs in Tangier: “He would take out his switchblade in the street and click it open and shut and push his way rudely through groups of pedestrians. Kerouac wrote that ‘suddenly he walked right through a bunch of Arabs on the sidewalk, making them split on both sides, muttering and swinging his arms. … ‘Just push ’em aside, the little (expletive),” ’ he told Jack.”

Concerning Burroughs’ views of women, Miles uses the term “misogyny” on several occasions, recalling that he developed “the bizarre idea that women came from another galaxy.”

Lest one think that Miles has an ax to grind, it’s worth noting that in 1972 he was handpicked to archive Burroughs’ work and that the men were, in Miles’ words, “good friends.” If anything, Miles takes it easy on Burroughs, often moving through the above incidents with a haste that suggests it pains him to find fault with his old buddy.

The chapters that cover Burroughs’ life in Lawrence cast him in a much more complimentary light. Burroughs lived there from the early 1980s until he died, at 83, in 1997, and Miles conveys a vivid picture of his subject during these years.

He continued to write, started painting (an ardent gun lover, he fired bullets at cans of spray paint), welcomed visiting celebrity fans, adopted lots of cats and made regular trips to Kansas City, where he received treatment at a methadone clinic and dined at the venerable Nichols Lunch (now gone).

In May 1997, Miles writes, a few months before his death, Burroughs was tapped for a cameo in a locally shot U2 video. “He played a shopping cart vagrant,” he writes, “dressed in a smart black suit, pushing a huge klieg light in his trolley, tying up the traffic in downtown Kansas City for several hours.”

But most of Burroughs’ days in and around Lawrence were much quieter, Miles says: “Old age softened him; for the first time he had a home, a support system of friends, fame and recognition, a regular supply of drugs and his cats.”

More information

Call Me Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles (736 pages; Twelve Books; $32)

Author visit: Barry Miles will discuss his book and answer questions at 7 p.m. Thursday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. Admission is $32 and includes two tickets to the talk, a copy of the book and one autographing admission ticket.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.

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