William S Burroughs – Junky

Posted on | June 12, 2011 | 5 Comments

JunkyJunky is William S. Burroughs semi-autobiographical story, about being a drug-addict – a “junky,” if you will – in the 1940s in the good ol’ US of A. At less than two hundred pages, this is an extremely short, albeit insightful read.

This first-person narrative is an unapologetic unemotional documentary of Burroughs’ experiences, the friends he made, and the encounters with the law, as they tried to clamp down on drugs, addiction and peddling, with the help of “pigeons”.

Originally published under the pseudonym, William Lee (Lee being his mother’s maiden name), at the very outset, the reader is told that the narrator is an Ivy League graduate (Harvard), with a trust-fund to his name. So, the theories of a “troubled childhood” or “hard-times” or “bad company” are almost instantly cast aside.

The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?

The answer is usually that he does not intend to become an addict. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to become a drug addict. […] You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked.

Burroughs does not make any excuses, but instead writes about the junk community with a kind of objectivism that would make a good journalist proud. His tale takes him through New York City, and then Kentucky, New Orleans and finally Mexico. However, in spite of the change in location, the paradigm remains the same:

Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts: East Fourteenth near Third in New York; Poydras and St.Charles in New Orleans; San Juan Létran in Mexico City. Stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfumes, pomades, novelties, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches Skid Row.

What makes this a truly tremendous feat is that Burroughs managed to get it published in the anti-drug America of the 1950s, where books like this, in all likelihood, got censored. However, despite being unapologetic, this book is almost a narrative on why addiction is bad, and how difficult a habit it is to kick, despite one telling oneself they have it all under control.

From junk sickness, there seems to be no escape. Junk sickness is the reverse side of junk kick. The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junk time and junk metabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions. You cannot escape from junk sickness any more than you can escape from junk kick after a shot.

The singular focus of the book is junk, despite it being autobiographical. Trysts with law, friends Burroughs scored with, friends he relied on and how he got the money to score are all detailed impeccably – you could say, it’s almost documented. Morphine, coke, heroin – how to procure them and the high you get off them – you name it, it’s there. However, the one complaint I had with the book is, the reader is not privy to the author’s personal life at all. For example, in a passing statement, we learn that Burroughs has a wife – wait…hang on… what?! Some of those bits were slightly confusing, but then, one must take a step back and remember that this is all about the addiction, and everything else is secondary.

I quite enjoy the Beatniks, in an almost perversive sense from Kerouac’s On The Road to this. As Kerouac says:

But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back.

Have you read any Beatnik literature? Or, do you have any on the to-read pile? I suspect my next one would be another Burroughs…Naked Lunch.


5 Responses to “William S Burroughs – Junky”

  1. sakura
    June 13th, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    I have ‘On the Road’ which I started a while back but couldn’t get into. Of course I’m planning to try again. I’m woefully under-read regarding Beatnik literature although it’s something I’ve always been interested.

  2. Aarti
    June 13th, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    I wonder if I’d be able to read this book objectively. I admit that drug addiction is something I have very little tolerance for, especially when people know its ill effects, and it’s hard for me to be sympathetic to a situation that I feel a person is in complete control of (though I KNOW, in my head, they are not really in control).

  3. Sarah
    June 19th, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    Interesting observation about the missing personal information. I guess addiction displaces relationships. I do want to read some Burroughs, but it will have to be Naked Lunch, I think.

    You might have to tell me what Beatnik literature is? Then I can tell you if I’ve read any or not… But it’s looking like a ‘no’ :)

  4. DamnedConjuror
    June 20th, 2011 @ 2:29 am

    Junky is the only novel of Burroughs I can stand.

    On the Road is a mess.

    tbh beatniks didn’t have much to do with the original group involving Kerouac, Ginsberg et al

    Howl is still a powerful poem and I think Gary Snyder’s work is worth a look

  5. anothercookiecrumbles
    June 25th, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    @sakura : I know the feeling… I want to read more Beatnik, but… I guess time will sort that out! Hope you get on better with your second attempt at On The Road. I found it slightly tiresome, but I thought that was because I was reading about this guy having the time of his life, while I was stuck in the hospital bed…

    @Aarti : I know what you mean. I’d have little tolerance for anyone who knows what they are getting into when they are getting into drugs. To play devil’s advocate though, it didn’t sound like Burroughs was fully aware of what he was getting into… it’s not like he was making a conscious decision to become a drug addict. I don’t know if that helps?

    @Sarah : I look forward to your thoughts on Naked Lunch. Hopefully, I will read it sometime soon as well. In the broadest sense, Beatniks refer to the anti-conformist younger generation of the 1950s-1960s. Wiki link here.

    @DamnedConjuror : Thanks for leaving your first comment on my blog. Thanks for the poem recommendation + Gary Snyder. Can’t say I’ve read either. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with you on Kerouac’s novel being a mess – it was tiresome, and Sal might have been a little too full of himself (little being an understatement), and have a really strange outlook on life, but there was something about the kind of free-rolling don’t-care life that I almost…. yearned for? Too romantic?

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