Reality didn’t always match the legend of Beat Generation’s leading author

Updated: 2014-01-27T05:38:07Z


Special to The Star

Author, raconteur and provocateur William S. Burroughs spent the last part of his life in Lawrence.

During this time, he was the ultimate name-check for artists of all stripes. To just state his last name carried with it markers of rebellion, drugs, guns, homosexuality and an overarching connotation of outlaws and outsiders.

I was lucky enough to meet him, write about him and spend time with him. What I discovered didn’t always match what I’d heard. Here is that story and his as well.

Part I: In which a young man steals a book from a school

In the spring of 1989, a college freshman drives from Lawrence to Topeka. He travels to a shall-remain-nameless high school to serve as a judge for a forensics competition. Between rounds of judging, one of which features a performance and a separate interruption by a goofball high school freshman who will later play a small role in the film “Wedding Crashers,” the college student begins to sniff at the bookshelves in the room. He spies a copy of William S. Burroughs’ “Junky.”

Whatever would this be doing in a high school? So not appropriate. Cool cover. The college student filches the copy and sticks it in his backpack.

Part II: An encyclopedia-like entry

William S. Burroughs was born Feb. 5, 1914, in St. Louis and died in Lawrence on Aug. 2, 1997. Graduated Harvard University, 1936. Married twice — Ilse von Klapper (divorced 1946); Joan Vollmer (died 1951). One child, William (died 1981). Published first book, “Junky,” under the pseudonym of William Lee in 1953. Considered — with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg — one of the major authors of the Beat Movement. Published most (in)famous novel, “Naked Lunch,” in 1959; the novel’s subject matter includes graphic sexuality, drug use, violence and wickedly dark humor. His influence stretches from literature to music, painting to philosophy.

Part III: In which a radio disc jockey gives out a secret in a shockingly idiotic manner

On a lazy, late summer afternoon in 1991, a college junior spins vinyl at KJHK 90.7 in Lawrence. In an old rock building in the northwest corner of campus, there exists a palpable sense of something ready to burst. The jocks at the station continually spin the alternative music that will become mainstream in the coming fall with the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”

Our disc jockey decides to play a cut off of Burroughs’ “Dead City Radio.” At the end of the cut, he inexplicably says, “That’s Lawrence’s own William S. Burroughs, who lives over at (secret address).” As it comes out of his mouth, the young man realizes his mistake.

Within five minutes, Bill Rich, a friend of Burroughs, is at the station. He rightly berates the young man with variations on “What the hell were you thinking?” The young man can do nothing but apologize.

Part IV: An imagined 20-something hipster, on Comedy Central’s ‘Drunk History,’ speaking of Burroughs’ influence

“He’s like Tesla, man, only in literature. He was a visionary. He pushes all the boundaries — sex, drugs. I mean the band Steely Dan is named after a thing in ‘Naked Lunch,’ right? And he did, like, incredible amounts of drugs the whole time — heroin, morphine. You name it, he did it. He once even went on a drug pilgrimage for this thing called yage.

“Did I tell you about boundaries already? Boundaries of consciousness, man. And narrative. Like he cut up his typed pages at random and then just pasted them back together. What? Oh yeah, he did accidentally (maybe, maybe not) shoot his wife in 1951. What? No, I haven’t really read that much of his stuff. But he’s huge, man. Like so big.”

Part V: In which a cub reporter sort-of unwittingly lies to his superiors in order to secure a big byline

In the early spring of 1996, a bartender-turned-graduate-student-turned-young-arts-reporter/book reviewer for the Lawrence Journal-World sits in the Bourgeois Pig with noted Lawrence writer and editor Patrick Quinn.

Quinn, whose last name one day will be the first name of the young arts reporter’s second son, says that The Kansas City Star is sending a reporter to Los Angeles to cover the Los Angeles County Museum’s blockbuster show, “Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts.” Hmmm. Quinn convinces the young man that he can get an audience with Mr. Burroughs. Quinn convinces the young man to go to the Journal-World right then and ask to cover the show.

In his editor’s office the young man offers to take care of housing and food if the paper will fly him out. “I have access ,” he says — even though he knows he doesn’t yet. A weeklong series, he says, in which we celebrate our town’s literary giant, culminating with a Sunday front. The editor clearly doesn’t want to do this. The reporter makes his final stab, “The Star is sending someone.”

OK, let’s do it.

After the trip to Los Angeles, and full of kind comments from townies, the reporter goes to speak to his editor’s boss. He wants to thank the paper for sending him to Los Angeles. The reporter says the paper has built an important, potentially profitable, bridge to the arts community with this series.

The editor’s boss simply says he didn’t know a damn thing about it. The reporter realizes that is his cue to leave.

It’s nearly three years later that Patrick Quinn admits to the reporter that he made the whole thing up about The Star sending someone to Los Angeles to cover the show. He claims he wanted to see what the reporter would do.

Part VI: A literary critic’s version of Burroughs’ influence

The cut-up technique, in which Burroughs would randomly put pieces of narrative together, actually prefigured the French literary theorists, such as Foucault, Derrida and Barthes, who would deliver post-structuralism, deconstruction and the death of the author.

Burroughs considered the word a virus; in other words, a mode of sociopolitical control not dissimilar to Valentin Voloshinov’s description of how all ideological struggle originates from battles over signifiers.

What Burroughs really does with “Naked Lunch” is destroy the remaining vestiges of romantic modernism and provide an inchoate post-modernism that privileges shifting narrative ground and actively destroys notions of a text’s “meaning.”

Forget the idea of transcendence through art; we now are entering a realm where, in Burroughs’ words — “nothing is true and everything is permitted.” We assume such an ideological position now, but in 1959 it was shattering to literary convention.

Part VII: Two, sometimes three, fingers of vodka mixed with Coca-Cola before and during dinner

After the L.A. trip, the reporter begins to attend Tuesday evening drinks and dinner at the Burroughs house with Lawrence poet Jim McCrary and Patrick Quinn. The four of them crack jokes, watch old sci-fi movies, or talk literature. Often they just listen to the Old Man tell stories.

About six months after William’s death, the reporter will move into the house. After a time, his future wife, Jennifer Copeland, will join him in residence there. While living there, she becomes pregnant with the couple’s first son, Miles.

Part VIII: Hyperbolic monikers and oneupmanship quotations about Burroughs

Godfather of Punk, Godfather of Cyberpunk, Godfather of Counterculture, El Hombre Invisible, Grand Old Man of American Letters, Deviant, Murderer, The Gentleman Junkie, Queer, Misogynist, Fraud

Norman Mailer famously said, “I think that William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.”

Film critic and professional pot-stirrer Dan Schneider writes, “Burroughs, however, was talentless, and never wrote anything approaching greatness. Ironically, the only reason anybody knows of him is that he was a murderer.”

Truman Capote once said, “I don’t think William Burroughs has an ounce of talent.”

Humbly, the reporter shall plagiarize himself from an article in Salon a long, long time ago, “Burroughs eludes easy literary classification; by turns he is a poststructuralist Dashiell Hammett, T.S. Eliot on the nod, Mark Twain with a gun.”

Part IX: Writer loses the third person and speaks from the heart

I still carry the key to William’s old house on my key chain, and, yes, the locks have been changed. The key reminds me of the time in my late 20s when I learned to grow up — as a person, a partner and a writer.

Today, my high school students have no idea who Burroughs is other than some old dude in a funny picture with Mr. Luce. My college students like the persona of Burroughs and stories about him more than his texts.

As a literature teacher and sometime critic, I often wonder about William’s literary legacy, whether he’s getting the posthumous propers that he deserves.

Do the gears of his literary reputation-making need to be better-oiled? What impact will the long-awaited new Burroughs biography have? I start asking these questions and quickly realize the macabre underpinnings of marketing a dead man.

Burroughs would have been 100 come Feb. 5, and so we celebrate the occasion; a synthetic memorial to a man and his work, but more likely a temperature check on his historical impact.

I can see all of that, but 25 years ago I stole a book I shouldn’t have. However, that pilfering prompted a journey that would take me beyond the hypermediated visage of Burroughs the cultural figure.

Instead, I got to know a fine old gentleman at a house in Lawrence at an address I’d rather not say in public again.

Mark Luce teaches English and art history at the Barstow School. He also teaches literature and writing at the University of Kansas.

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