Later in his career, William S. Burroughs was looked upon as an elder statesman of cool, a writer linked to countless avant-garde and countercultural figures across his 83 years.
His creative life overlapped with the Beat writers, with Paul Bowles, Timothy Leary, Andy Warhol, John Cage, and the likes of Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, and Laurie Anderson, all of whom worshiped at his shrine. He recorded a 1992 piece called “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” with Kurt Cobain, who wrote like a teenybopper about it in his diary: “I’ve collaborated with one of my only Idols William Burroughs and I couldn’t feel cooler.”
A few generations of Americans from the 1950s through the 1990s felt ownership of Burroughs, often for different reasons. Older baby boomer fans revered him for his subversive, nonlinear 1959 novel “Naked Lunch,” which was famously banned in Boston between 1965 and 1966, and they knew he was the model for the druggy guru Old Bull Lee in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” And when Burroughs died in 1997, he was a much younger generation’s respected “Godfather of Punk,” an icon of angry, anarchic expression and of heroin, the drug that had strangely hip cachet in the 1990s Seattle scene.
But Barry Miles’s huge, engaging, vignette-crammed biography “Call Me Burroughs” throws a bit of cold water on all aspects of the Burroughs legend. It’s a door-stopper of a reminder that while, as a writer, Burroughs led us into the eye of the storm of the subconscious, as a man he let his family and some of his friends down and spent an inordinate amount of his lifetime scoring and using drugs. Miles, who has written a lot about Beat writers, including biographies of Kerouac and Ginsberg, doesn’t judge his subject, yet Burroughs emerges as a largely unsympathetic and sad figure.
Miles shows how Burroughs’s life rivals his fiction as a wildly offbeat and disturbing story. “Although he has created some enduring characters,” Robert Palmer wrote in The New York Times after a 1978 concert in honor of Burroughs, “he is his own most interesting character.” Everything about the man, from his endless international journeying from hotel to hotel to his belief in occult powers such as curses and demons, fell far outside of convention, just like his fiction, which was often based on his hallucinations and dreams. He had sex with women and men, but mostly with boys, sometimes in their mid-teens. On one level, “Call Me Burroughs” plays out as a travelogue of his movements from one terribly young lover to another.
Burroughs was born into a wealthy St. Louis family (his grandfather founded Burroughs Corp.) and went to Harvard. After graduation, some overseas travels, and a period in Chicago, he landed in New York City, where he befriended Kerouac and Ginsberg, and where he injected his first junk.
The most defining event in Burroughs’s life is the shooting of his wife, and, naturally, it gets a chunk of space here. He was married twice early on, the second time to Joan Vollmer, an intelligent woman who was addicted to amphetamines. In 1951, while living in Mexico City and partying as usual with friends, Burroughs, who was obsessed with guns, drunkenly attempted to shoot a glass off Joan’s head in response to a challenge. He killed her, but he ultimately got a suspended sentence of two years in jail.
The tragedy had no impact on his passion for guns, and when he died, his friends put his favorite pistol in his coffin, along with his reading glasses, a pen, three joints, and a packet of heroin.
Much of the most interesting material in “Call Me Burroughs” comes from the less familiar episodes, such as the time Burroughs, in New York in his mid-20s, cut off part of a finger to punish a guy he was obsessed with; he wound up in a psych ward. Burroughs was unhappy for most of his life, and he cycled through many belief systems in search of peace, including psychoanalysis, Scientology, and the use of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone accumulator, a box that would supposedly rejuvenate the user. The thing he did with the most consistency, though, was to use drugs, which he injected for most of his adult life despite many efforts to kick. “Virtually all of Burroughs’s writing was done when he was high on something,” Miles notes.
Miles gives a brief sketch of the son Burroughs had with Joan, and it, too, is sad. After Joan’s death, William Burroughs Jr., who had to be weaned off amphetamines after he was born, was raised by Burroughs’s parents. Burroughs rarely saw Billy Jr., and in 1981 Billy’s life of pain, for which he blamed his father, was cut short by severe alcoholism. “Burroughs refused to accept that by killing the boy’s mother he had destroyed Billy’s life,” Miles writes. Burroughs’s first response to the death was to score heroin, despite being on methadone at the time.
The Beat material in “Call Me Burroughs” is rich, not surprisingly given Miles previous work. Burroughs didn’t embrace his public identification as a Beat; he had no romantic feelings about America, which he often left to live in Tangier, Paris, and London, and he was no fan of Neal Cassady, whom he considered “a cheap con man,” according to Miles. San Francisco was heavily identified with the Beats, but Burroughs didn’t make his first visit to that city until 1974. “[H]e had been abroad throughout that whole period,” Miles writes, “and had not even met most of the people whom the public regarded as his old friends.” His early rapport with Kerouac quickly deteriorated into mutual contempt.
Reading about Burroughs in this amount of depth is an odd experience; I felt simultaneously turned off and fascinated — what many feel while reading his fiction. He was unerringly selfish and careless, and yet he lived a unique, uncompromising life that led to a body of unique, uncompromising work. With the help of Miles’ extensive research, he makes for a captivating antihero.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.