Counterculture chronicler Barry Miles’ latest biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life, is a very thorough account of one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, not that his writing was the most interesting, at least at first. Burroughs kind of falls into the trade, much of his first three books reworked from recollections in letters to reluctant paramour Allen Ginsberg.
His best-known book, Naked Lunch, began as routines made up in an attempt to seduce Ginsberg as well as shock and entertain his constant cadre of artists, junkies, and fellow ne’er-do-wells surrounding him in Moroccan exile.
Anyone with the most cursory interest in the Beats (an appellation he never would acknowledge) knows the defining act of Burroughs’ early life is the accidental murder of his wife Joan. It is the struggle to understand what led him to such a horrible moment that finally gives him the courage/derangement to abandon straightforward narrative and jump into the literary deep end.
Although Miles does a good job of placing Burroughs’ cut-up experiments in context of the mid-century avant-garde art movements, he counts on readers having navigated those texts and doesn’t provide examples of what he struggles to describe. In depth.
In many ways, Burroughs was ahead of his time and really presaged the post-digital revolutionary world in which we now find ourselves buried neck deep. These days, someone would (or more probably, already has) make an app to chew through supplied texts, spitting out surprising combinations, juxtapositions, and a whole lot of bullshit at the push of a virtual button. Burroughs did it first. With scissors. Like a boss.
Junkies are not interesting in and of themselves. Of course, it was not surprising to learn the only thing that meant more to Burroughs than writing (and chasing Arab boys) was heroin but it did become tiresome and somewhat sad to think of all the work that could have been accomplished had he not spent so much time getting hooked, getting clean, getting hooked, getting clean … etc. Rather than going the rock star route and making the life seem glamorous, Miles’ extensive examination makes a great cautionary tale.
When all 600 pages were said and done, what really came through, and was surprising, was what a gentle, big heart Burroughs had underneath the ultra-cool exterior, barring his rampant misogyny. He often tried to do the right thing, other times did not and would later regret it, but in the end, the junk always won out.
To quote Neil Young from an equally dark place, “He tried to do his best, but could not.”