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  If you ever happen to be a notorious scathing outlaw revolutionary pervert American novelist and you find that the New Yorker has published an excerpt of your diaries, you can be sure that one of two things has happened: 1. your writing has gone flat; or 2. you're dead. In the case of William Seward Burroughs, it's the latter.

Burroughs' life may raise the question "Must genius be accompanied by madness?" But not so much as his death raises the question "Why has the question 'Must genius be accompanied by madness?' been replaced in our time by the question 'Must talent be accompanied by being an asshole?'?" Burroughs was more of a madman than an asshole, but knew about assholes because he spent a lot of time in them and, a card-carrying member of the Write What You Know school of writing, wrote about them with abandon and panache, and about death, and nightmare insect creatures, and a lot of other things and people he knew.

He was born to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Mo., on February 5, 1914. As a child, he wanted to be a writer because writers "lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle." At age fifteen, he was packed off to a boarding school for boys called Los Alamos Ranch School, on the site where the first atom bomb was later made. There he read Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde and did odious chores and always had a chill. The other boys at school didn't like the frail homosexual aesthete Billy. He wrote diaries and stories that later embarrassed him because of "the terrible falsity of the emotions expressed." It wasn't until 1950, at the age of 36, that Burroughs finished a book that got published. It was called Junky and came out in 1953.

And now to the madness. While writing Junky, he himself was a heroin addict, living in Mexico City with his wife, Joan Vollmer, with whom he conceived a child, William Jr. William Jr. died in 1981 of cirrhosis of the liver after a life of hard drinking. Burroughs Senior was a disastrous husband and father, not at all the sort of person you'd want to marry or be conceived by. In September of 1951, drunk and drugged, he and Vollmer performed their "William Tell act." She placed a drinking glass on top of her head and he tried to shoot it off with a gun, but he shot her in the head and she died. There are confused accounts of the legal aftermath. He either served a very short prison sentence in Mexico, or he fled to South America and served no time, depending on whose account you believe. He was eventually cured of his heroin addiction, but he continued to be a gun enthusiast, for which you could criticize him in the same way you could criticize a convicted rapist for enjoying masturbation.

Burroughs was not okay with having accidentally murdered his wife. The killing, he said, "brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out." He was subject to bouts of intense depression. He often dreamt of a place he called The Land of the Dead. In the last book published in his lifetime, My Education: A Book of Dreams, he wrote: "Can I find coffee and a roll in one of the dime cafés? This is a recurring question in the Land of the Dead. The answer is, almost certainly not." Compare this with a similar passage written by another famous New Yorker writer and alleged pederast, Woody Allen: "Still obsessed by thoughts of death, I brood constantly. I keep wondering if there is an afterlife, and if there is will they be able to break a twenty?" The difference between the two passages is in the placement of the irony. In the second, the irony stands between Woody Allen and "Woody Allen." In the first, the irony stands between what William Burroughs wants and what William Burroughs knows he's going to get. In other words, they're both being funny, but Burroughs isn't kidding.
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Burroughs' second and best-known book, Naked Lunch, was published in 1959 in England and three years later in America, where it was subjected to a prolonged but unsuccessful obscenity trial. Naked Lunch is a novel, kind of. It contains a lot of lurid and apocalyptic scenes and recurring characters, but you often don't know where the action in a given scene is taking place, or what its relation is to the action in the scenes that precede or follow it. There is no clear protagonist or observing consciousness. Sometimes it reads like a movie script, often like a transcription of a nightmare, here and there like nasty, stomach-turning porn.

In later years he wrote more conventional novels, such as The Place of Dead Souls and The Western Lands, though he did not lead a more conventional life: as late as 1972, at the age of 58, he was arrested in New York City for writing the words AH POOK IS HERE on a subway wall.

A lot of hoopla surrounded the death of Burroughs, as well as that of his friend Allen Ginsberg, who died in the same year. I suspect that quite such a big deal would not have been made had Burroughs and Ginsberg died five or ten years sooner. Why? Partly because they were both smart, eloquent, honest queers, and queerness is now finally becoming at least crudely understood among the non-queer population. There are those in the gay and gay-friendly community who object when homosexuality is linked with outrageous behavior or deviance or drug use or a life beyond the edges of mainstream social comportment. But there are many others who recognize that, for better or worse, being openly gay has historically had the status of a subversive act. It is in this latter context that Burroughs and Ginsberg have rightly been lionized.

Also, regardless of whom they had sex with, Burroughs and Ginsberg spoke with clear, sharp voices that cut through the soupy mix of crap and filler that befouls the atmosphere of a culture on which an smaller and smaller group of powerful assholes now have a stranglehold. Reader, as you peruse the Burroughs passage with which I will close this short and modest eulogy, I encourage you to hold a thought in your head of your own personal two or three least favorite talking assholes in positions of power in today's increasingly monopolized culture economy. Ready? Here we go: "Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?" says the infamous Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch,

"This ass talk had a sort of gut frequency. It hit you right down there like you gotta go... This man worked for a carnival you dig, and to start with it was like a novelty ventriloquist act... After a while the ass started talking on its own... Then it developed sort of teeth-like little raspy in-curving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act a round it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights. It would get drunk, too, and have crying jags nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth. Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: 'It's you who will shut up in the end.'"



(This is a modified version of an essay I wrote in August of 1997 to mark the death of William S. Burroughs. It was originally published in Goodbye: The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries, edited and published by Steve Miller. --M.S.)

 
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Copyright © 1999 Matthew Sharpe.

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