Junky by William Burroughs – A Retro Review
Burroughs’ first novel, a largely autobiographical account of the constant cycle of drug dependency, cures and relapses, remains the most unflinching, unsentimental account of addiction ever written. Through junk neighbourhoods in New York, New Orleans and Mexico City, through time spent kicking, time spent dealing and time rolling drunks for money, through junk sickness and a sanatorium, Junky is a field report (by a writer trained in anthropology at Harvard) from the American post-war drug underground. A cult classic, it has influenced generations of writers with its raw, sparse and unapologetic tone. This definitive edition painstakingly recreates the author’s original text word for word.
My first encounter with William S. Burroughs’ was whilst reclining in an artist’s studio. The fabulous Piran Bishop always provided an array of interesting music and material on my visits and he had a recording of Burroughs that I listened to a number of times. It was surreal, mad, and strangely beautiful. At that time, I was still studying (weighed down with other books), and had not yet had the opportunity to discover that brilliant group of artists known as ‘The Beats’.
In fact it was (rather appropriately) during my first visit to New York that I became attracted to this period of literature. A friend and I had been walking all day, searching out such literary sites of interest as W.H. Auden’s old flat, when we ended up in a book shop. I picked up a copy of “Howl” as we had discovered the film of the same title was playing at an authentic New York movie theater later that evening. We then proceeded to drink tea while taking turns to read the poem aloud in preparation. I loved it. And I loved the film. However, this is not a post about Ginsberg.
Having delved into the fantastically illustrated graphic history of “The Beats” by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor and Paul Buhle, and read, and listened to more of Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s work, I finally turned my attention to Burroughs. And I’m very glad I did. The two titles I chose were “Junky” and “Naked Lunch” and it was the former that first arrived in the post.
Setting out to tell the truth of addiction, “Junky” introduces us to the bleak world of opium addiction. Having very little experience of drugs, I found it quite enlightening. It certainly framed addiction in terms I could understand. I love the description of Burroughs “junk cells”, which seem to rightly place this type of addiction at an extremely physical level. The reader experiences the torture Bill experiences when being forced to steal money from drunk bums in order to feed this habit, as well as the intense reaction to withdrawal from the drug. I liked the book for the same reasons I like Bukowski’s books: the author does not shy away from writing about the mundane.
This is not a romanticized presentation of this underworld, but rather aimed to clarify the nature of this particular addiction. My Penguin Modern Classics edition is particularly interesting, as it includes Burroughs’ original introduction to the “Junk” manuscript, where he outlines and corrects a number of misconceptions about opium addiction (see appendix 2). However, he concludes this introduction with the following:
“I am using the known facts as a starting point in an attempt to reach facts that are not known.” (143)
The impetus for writing seems to be discovering truth, and again highlights the ‘Beat’ preoccupation with discovery, alongside their presentation of the rough edges of existence. Indeed, the reader leaves Burroughs’ narrator on a quest to discover a drug named ‘Yage’ which is purported to increase telepathic sensitivity…
I think it is this persistent belief in the possibilities life can offer (despite the harsh realities of life) that is what I love about reading these writers, and I can’t wait to dig into ‘Naked Lunch’, as I know it will be a different experience entirely.
This review was posted originally on One Day Perhaps I’ll Know.