Cover of book: William S. Burroughs: A Life

Barry Miles
William S. Burroughs: A Life

On September 6, 1951, William S. Burroughs was walking down a Mexico City street when he realised he was crying. “What in hell is wrong with you?” he thought to himself. He joined his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, and they threw back some drinks with a couple of friends. A little after seven in the evening, Burroughs announced that it was “about time for our William Tell act”. Joan, who “got through between one and two bottles of tequila or gin a day”, followed his lead and put a glass on her head.

And then he shot and killed her.

In a recent post on The New York Review of Books website, Tim Parks wrote about literary biography: “With only the rarest of exceptions ... each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behaviour, however problematic and possibly outrageous ... [is] invariably described in a flattering light.”

To approach Burroughs in such a manner would not be at all difficult. His life was all kinds of dangerous and romantic. In the 1930s, he married a German-Jewish woman and helped her to migrate to the US and escape the Nazis. His friendship with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg gave us the Beat Generation. He was in London for the swinging ’60s and in New York City for the birth of punk, and by the time he returned to the American heartland – he was born in St Louis a hundred years ago last month and died in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997 – he was widely considered one of the most important avant-gardists of the century.

It would not be difficult to approach him in that way, but it would probably be ill-advised. Fortunately, his latest biographer, Barry Miles, clearly respects the man and his work but refuses to give him a free ride. Nowhere is this truer than on the subject of Burroughs’ shooting of Joan and its repercussions, particularly for Billy jnr, their son, who died of liver failure at the age of 33. Although Miles quotes Burroughs’ famous introduction to Queer several times – “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death” – he doesn’t seem to buy it.

He’s right not to. The passage is contrite and trite in equal measure, an early use of the argument that art or genius can justify great shortcomings or even crimes, which is still trotted out with surprising regularity today. 

Other facets of Burroughs’ life – namely his long-standing heroin habit – are no longer as shocking as they once were. His views on drugs changed over time, but he ultimately liked them, knew what he was doing with them, and wrote every one of his books while on them. His later claims that he would never have started writing without junk are much more credible than such claims about killing his wife. His muses were morphine, marijuana, majoun and, for the last 17 years of his life, methadone.

And, of course, men. Miles does not leave us wondering whether Burroughs was getting any, and his penis size is given the detailed paragraph we’ve apparently all been waiting for. On the other hand, sex plays a central role in Burroughs’ books and his partners were some of his major characters. What Miles is providing us with is less a scorecard than a key or legend to the work.

The work in question takes a long time to appear. This is partially because Burroughs didn’t start writing until he was in his 30s, but it’s also because Miles doesn’t talk about it at any length until Burroughs starts work on The Naked Lunch in Tangier, nearly halfway through the book. As a result, we get very little in the way of discussion about Junky and Queer.

Miles makes up for this with a short but insightful section on Burroughs’ debt to the picaresque tradition, connecting The Naked Lunch to Don Quixote, Tom Jones and the works of Céline (who appears in one of the book’s best cameos, assuring Burroughs and Ginsberg that he himself was the only living writer worth reading, but promising to glance at The Naked Lunch and Howl). He also provides a great deal of insight into Burroughs’ editorial process. Burroughs played essentially no role in the arrangement of his books, delegating the tasks to others. The vignettes that comprise The Naked Lunch – Burroughs referred to them as “vaudeville routines” – went into the book in the order they were retrieved from his suitcase. The cut-up method that he used to write The Soft Machine, and later applied to audio and film projects, is also discussed in great detail.

Burroughs lived his life relentlessly and this sense of movement and incident – as well as an ever-changing cast of famous characters – gives the book its narrative drive. As a correspondent, he was honest, dryly hilarious and voluble. This gives the book its voice.

That is a good thing for Miles as a biographer and a better one for us as readers. On more than one occasion, I found myself wondering whether it was possible for a biographer, while being perfectly faithful to his subject’s life story, to nevertheless
betray his subject stylistically – Miles’s prose has none of Burroughs’ economy, wit or bite. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to Burroughs, who believed that language was a control system and spent a good couple of decades attempting to destroy it. (Miles tries to relate this to contemporary events, though not nearly as much or as well as he should.)

While he is quick to acknowledge those whose research he has used, notably James Grauerholz and Ted Morgan, Miles clearly aims at winning the crown of definitiveness. But surely there’s a market for literary biographies that don’t reach such mammoth proportions in such a pursuit? Do readers need to toil through blizzards of street names and room numbers, through pages of throwaway names that could have probably been thrown away, too?

Fortunately, Miles has a subject here whose writing imparts a certain crackle and pop to even the dullest sentences it is couched in. Burroughs commands our attention despite the white noise.  MD

Hachette, 736pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 8, 2014 as "Barry Miles, William S. Burroughs: A Life".

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