Monday, October 27, 2008

Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr. - William S. Burroughs, Jr., Ed. David Ohle

A book I had always been vaguely interested in pursuing was this autobiography/biography of William S. Burroughs Jr. The first time I encountered the book, in a South Carolina library several years ago, I hadn't known that Burroughs had a son. Even more, he had a son that published two books. And just thinking about the oftentimes off-putting subject matter of Burroughs work, it seemed at odds with his persona that he would be a regular, everday family man. Well, it is not at odds with his persona it turns out, because Burroughs had a somewhat distant relationship with his son.

They had lived together through the son's toddler years, and after the accidental shooting death of his wife, Burroughs sent his son to live with his parents in Palm Beach, Florida. After twelve or so years there, Burroughs the younger wanted to spend time with his father, so he flew to Tangier when he was 16 and witnessed the kind of life his father was leading there. One of the first things that happens is one of his father's friends makes sexual advances towards him. He gets used to it though, for a while at least, and smokes kif, and learns about his father's art. His description of the cut-up method is the one of the best I have read:

"I might mention that Mr. Gysin invented the cut-up method as applied to words or at least he was one of the first to take it seriously. The cut-up method enables the writer to achieve the same effect as the artist can with picture montage. The effect can be and often is shattering to the receptive reader because words are images in a much more personalized and internal sense than pictures. I recollect one mind-blowing ditty that my father had on his tape recorder. It was a word montage by Brion Gysin and consisted of one phrase: 'I come to free the words,' repeated over and over in different order. That is, 'The words are free to come, I come freely to the words, The free come to the words...' And while the words were repeated, the speed of the tape was increased gradually until it became a supersonic whine. But because of the rhythm, and after the cartoon laughter stage, some part of the listener would keep pace until he was virtually transported. To where, I don't know, or cannot report." (15)

I shouldn't attempt to lay down Junior's whole life story here. The book consists of four lengthy chapters which gradually will break one's heart. The first half of each chapter is Burroughs Jr.'s own writing, taken from what would have been his third autobiographical novel, Prakriti Junction. The second half of each chapter consists of oral history as told by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, James Grauerholz, Anne Waldman, George Von Hilsheimer, and others, and additionally letters, mostly from son to father. These three separate mediums through which the story of the young man's life is told combine to create quite a touching and very realistic portrait. I have to say that the oral history consistently interested me the most, and the letters were sometimes tedious, as the previous information communicated had begun to sound repetitive. Burroughs Jr. is not a duplicitous autobiographer and 98% of the time his mind is sharp enough to recognize how absurd his outward physical behavior has become.

The first chapter charts his path from childhood through later education at the experimental Green Valley School, his subsequent arrests on drug charges and time spent at a rehab facility in Lexington, KY. The second chapter appears as if it will be the happiest, with the meeting of his wife Karen, their marriage, the publication of his first book Speed and the progress on his second book Kentucky Ham and various adventures traveling around the country that recall On the Road except with a far lesser degree of exuberance. By the end of the chapter, things are starting to look bleak. The third chapter is mostly a continuation in the vein of the second chapter, with an increased emphasis on Junior's alcoholic habits. He is pretty much a full-blown one throughout the entire part. The fourth chapter is undoubtedly the masterpiece section of this book, the most intriguing part, the most depressing part, and the most cathartic part.

The event which becomes the centerpiece of the book and Junior's life and death is the liver transplant he undergoes at age 28. There is question about how his liver had become so damaged at such a young age, even though he was an extremely heavy drinker. The consensus ends up being that, the drinking probably caused it, but there was probably another health concern that had caused it to occur so early. The operation for the transplant takes 18 hours and Burroughs Jr. reflects on the new appearance of his body:

"The wound, as I called it, was three inches across, eighteen inches long, and as deep as my backbone. I was gutted like a Halloween pig. I couldn't be stitched up because of the infection danger and had to heal from the inside out. When the nurse first saw it, she said, 'Oh my God!' Which scared me to death. Just what I needed. And it had to be washed out with saline at least three times a day and disinfected. Slosh it in with a squirting machine, suck it out with a vacuum machine. The first time I looked down at what they were doing, I said it, too: 'Oh my God!' I didn't look down there again for weeks." (121-122)

Burroughs Jr.'s new life after the operation last five years, and Allen Ginsberg remarked that he couldn't have lived much longer than seven years, that the new liver was constantly being rejected by his body so that he had to take steroids to reduce the rejection, which in turn affected Junior's psychological state, which had changed dramatically in his new, crippled condition. The end of the book is particularly hard to take, especially when the only disturbance between father and son rears its ugly head. Burroughs Jr. asked for $500 to buy a car in Denver, CO to help in finding a job and was not given the money. So he wrote a letter to his father that he never sent. This letter rivals Kafka's famous letter to his father.

There is also a page where Junior writes "pain" a couple hundred times, rivalling William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man "dorky" page. Finally there is much talk of despair and suicide. Most moving at the end of Burroughs Jr.'s autobiographical contribution:

"There's no reason to think that my existence is of any value to anyone. (If I want visitors I usually have to call somebody and feign healthiness to get company.) I tried to give a party, but nobody was interested. I think that fairly soon I am finished, right or wrong--I simply cannot take it--and there's no reason left to try. This is as close to the real suicide note as I have come yet. I'm tired of beating around the bush. The only question left is how.
There hardly seemed any reason left to try to keep it up. I keep hoping that some of my letters, some of the things I've put into the world will bear fruit--but my faith is flagging. There is no money (it's a horror in itself that being without money can be a horror in itself. People actually hate you for it). More and more, I count myself amongst those who will die young, either by design or accident--in my case, probably by design. This is becoming an obsession and I cannot break away from it.
God, I am sick of people." (151)

Burroughs went on to live a few months longer, travelling to Florida to see an old classmate that had a crush on him before he became an item with Karen. He settled down there temporarily and died shortly thereafter from complications stemming from a heart attack. While he is not the literary giant his father is, his prose style will prove to be far more satisfying for the majority of readers interested in a coherent story with beginning, middle, and end. This is also an excellent depiction of William S. Burroughs the man, a caring father, but a very detached one, never washing his hands of his son, but obviously frustrated by the way he is blamed for every fault that his son developed. He was always supportive, from a distance, and the relationship is sometimes warmly felt in their letters--with the exception of the single aforementioned one. Taken in as a whole, this is an excellent document of a man that many probably did not know existed, and a heartbreaking story full of oftentimes gruesome details that reveal just how much suffering one person can be able to withstand.

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