William S. Burroughs, in looking back on his life, would often comment that the defining moment in his career was the tragic moment when he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken game of William Tell. Being one of the rare times that his master aim failed him, as well as the impetus that sent him into Tangiers and to the realizations that led to “Naked Lunch” and the Nova Trilogy, saw it as a telepathic event. As he said in the introduction to “Queer,” “The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”
But if the death maneuvered him into a lifelong struggle, it also had vicious repercussions on the child he had with Joan, a son who bore his name. William S. Burroughs Jr. (known as Billy to friends and family) was four years old at the time, and the shooting not only drove him away from his father but also inflicted the same psychic aftershock of drug use and violent thoughts. He too sought to use writing as a way to escape the Ugly Spirit, with the autobiographical novels 1971’s “Speed” and 1973’s “Kentucky Ham” putting his addictions down on paper. Like his father, he too could write with uncommon skill – but unlike his father, he couldn’t write himself out of it.
David Ohle’s biography of Burroughs Jr. was titled “Cursed From Birth,” and looking at his roots it comes across as darkly appropriate. Joan used benzedrine constantly while pregnant and Billy was born addicted, and Burroughs was at the time going through a series of opium habits that would later fuel his book “Junky.” Shuttled from Texas to Mexico as a child he was eventually sent to live with his grandparents in St. Louis after his mother’s death, having little contact with his father and stifled in suburbia. Predictably, he acted out, skipping school and experimenting with drugs on random road trips.
Burroughs Jr.’s first novel “Speed” follows the most extensive of these trips with a look into the “speed freak” culture of 1960s New York City. Heading into the city with friends, Burroughs Jr. found himself exposed on a constant basis to methamphetamines and booze, seeking a fix and dodging the police cracking down on his friends. His devil-may-care nature leads him to try whatever he can get his hands on, but it also means he is constantly fighting off the vicious paranoia and physical breakdown of drug use to the point where his mind seems ready to break.
The original works of the Beat Generation seemed to portray their world as a sort of setting free of real danger, where there was always a bar willing to seat you or a way to scrape together drug money, but Burroughs Jr. isn’t going to have any of that. This isn’t the mad bar-hoppings of Jack Kerouac or Jan Kerouac’s free-flowing Southwest parties, these are flea-ridden flophouses and darkened streets at New York’s most dangerous hours. More than once he winds up in jail, and it’s regularly implied that without the generosity of his father’s friend Allen Ginsberg he would have been left there to rot.
Burroughs Jr.’s voice has a lot in common with his father’s, ranging from the sardonic off-the-cuff remarks (“He and Vinnie, another charmer, poured acid on the kid’s legs and he never walked again. But you can never tell, medical science is making great strides these days”) to the frightening visions that strike out in drug sickness (“The skyscrapers in the mist writhed like monster cobras, of course”). But unlike Burroughs the elder, whose autobiographical efforts come across as detached – owing to the anthropological view he took of his subject – Burroughs Jr. never stops being native, and his narrative reflects the rapid degenerating thought process that amphetamines wreak on the mind.
In many ways, “Speed” is reminiscent less of Burroughs the elder’s efforts and more of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” and its young narrator Alex DeLarge. Like “Clockwork Orange” the sentences have a cynical lilt and rarely seem to pause, mired in more reaction than reflection, as if the mix of youth and stimulants won’t permit the narrator to take any more time. Burroughs Jr. seems aware of this but seems either afraid or unable to stop, observing at one point “I’d been running in overdrive for so long that I was leery of really stopping to take notice of myself.” It’s a struggle that seems much more real than the original Beats, free of mystique and overwhelming visions.
While “Speed” evokes comparisons to Burgess and “A Clockwork Orange,” Burroughs Jr.’s second novel is more reminiscent of Ken Kesey and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In this installment, his lifestyle of drug abuse has finally caught up with him and he has been arrested, forced to a rehabilitation facility in Kentucky and the almost anarchic system for dealing with him and legions of addicts. After being forced to exist in the hospital setting, he sets out for Alaska as part of a work release program, a cold and unflinching wilderness on par with “Speed’s” slums in terms of comfort.
Cut off from the addicts and city life of his first work, Burroughs Jr. goes deeper into himself, and his work takes on more of a novelistic observatory quality. He presents the inmates of the asylum – many half-crazy or locked up for years – as a cast of characters, and paints their exploits as such: starting a newspaper, eying the female visitors, scheming for an early release. Later in the book when sent to Alaska, his work takes on a journal format, presenting events in order and often sliding into stream-of-consciousness as if it was lifted from the pages.
“Kentucky Ham” also brings in Burroughs Jr.’s father as a cast member – flying in from London to assist with the trial, nursing his own junk habit and seeing his son for the first time in years. Showing him in Florida and memories of visiting him in Tangier, Burroughs Sr. (usually referred to as “Bill” or “the Old Man”) comes across as distant, spending less time looking after his son and more staring at the sunset or an orgone box for hours before dashing back to the typewriter to “transcribe” his Word Hoard. Jan Kerouac’s novels were peppered with evidence of how she longed to connect with her father, but Burroughs Jr. has few of these feelings, seemingly assuming such a connection would never happen.
Where he does share more similarity with his father is in an openness of thought, which takes over in the final chapter as Burroughs Jr. goes into an impassioned plea for the legalization of drugs. Waxing on the harmless nature of most stoned addicts, the culture of distrust and the reality of how prevalent heroin was at the time, he has the veteran’s voice seen at the end of “Junky.” Our narrator has come through the storm of drug use and seen the reality of its treatment, and as such sees the world in a different light.
Burroughs Jr. did manage to make his way out of the street and drug world he chronicled, but unfortunately his addictive nature wouldn’t allow him to move to full-time professional writer status. Replacing drugs with alcohol he shredded his liver, surviving only due to a series of coincidences that put a gifted doctor and donor liver in his hospital. He worked on a third novel about the experience, “Prakriti Junction,” but never finished it as he kept drinking and stopped taking his anti-rejection meds. He eventually died in 1981 in Florida at the age of 33, passed out in a ditch and estranged from all his loved ones.
Perhaps Burroughs Jr. was never able to be saved, caught in the mood he had seen on his father’s face after Joan’s shooting: “Over the yearning and pain that he felt for me I felt something heavier. Like lead, but molten and smelling of gunpowder and burnt copper. The Burroughs Curse.” That curse may have claimed his life, but it gave him the drive to send back reports from the trenches – works that earned their place in the best of drug memoirs, and worthy heirs of the Beat energy.