Hardest of the Hard: William Burroughs

Word Virus cuts close to William Burroughs’ granite core.

Word_VirusWas there ever a writer more hard-bitten than William S. Burroughs, either in person or in prose? Genet, a close contender, by comparison was flowery and sentimental. Raymond Chandler’s detective stories? Not nearly as crusty. Burroughs’ writing, as metallic and riveting as the bullet casings he left littering his real and fictional paths, reflected not only his ultra-cynical worldview, but his own emotional straight-jacketing.

Lise so many others enamored of the Burroughs mythology, I’ve read a few of his novels (Queer, Junkie, the third installment in his “Red Night Trilogy,” The Western Lands), digested articles about him, seen him in a few films, discussed him in literary circles, observed punk rockers and art fags idolizing him, heard his gravely recorded voice droning on about filth, drugs, boys, corruption, disease and death, and imagined him as the height of cool. But until recently, I’d never had a chance to dig underneath the myth.

So I welcome Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press; $27.50, cloth; 1998), edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg. As the only anthology reflecting Burroughs’ entire literary output, from his teens into his 80s, the volume lets readers trace the evolution of Burroughs’ style and preoccupations over the course of nearly 50 years. Burroughs himself, shortly before his death in 1997, approved the final selections in Word Virus., thereby stamping the anthology with his imprimatur.

The excerpted writings, however, while showcasing Burroughs’ brilliantly caustic mind at work and fascinating in their enormous variety — the selected passages range from a previously unpublished collaboration with Jack Kerouac in 1945 to Burroughs’ Yagé letters to Alan Ginsberg in 1953, his alternately acclaimed and reviled novel Naked Lunch in the late ’50s, his experimental “cut-ups” from the late ’50s and early ’60s, his monumental “Red Night Trilogy” from the early ’70s to the late ’80s, and, near the end, his most sentimental writing – about his cat – from the mid-’80s — do not by themselves offer a satisfying grasp of Burroughs’ enormously complex motivations.

For that, readers need some backgrounding by the editors. Fortunately, adding immeasurably to the volume’s strength, Word Virus includes extensive biographical commentary by Grauerholz, Burroughs’ long-time editor, manager, and close friend (co-editor Silverberg, also a close friend from the early 1980s on, who served at times as Burroughs’ publisher and personal publicist, provides only a brief but illuminating editor’s preface). These reflections, largely journalistic and objective, at other times personal, cast considerable light on Burroughs’ state of mind as he moved from phase to phase of his career.

The commentary is also, simultaneously, adoring of the man. Grauerholz seems to want to humanize Burroughs, but he never really gets at the man’s emotions. He seems cautious, respectful, even over-protective. He and Silverberg were, after all, members of Burroughs’ extended queer family. We’re assured Burroughs had many deeply felt, long-lasting friendships and affairs, yet despite Grauerholz’ efforts, Burroughs still comes across as the stiff, coldly intellectual, emotionally crippled figure of popular imagining.

Shedding further light on the man, at the outset of the anthology, is a brief but excellent introductory essay by writer/scholar Ann Douglas, who analyzes Burroughs’ literary legacy and situates his work in relation to that of his peers, most notably his fellow Beat Generation progenitors Ginsberg and Kerouac.

“Cool, even icy in manner, acerbic in tone,” Douglas writes, “Burroughs once remarked that all his intimate relationships had been failures-he had denied ‘affection . . . when needed or supplied [it] when unwanted.’ He had not responded to his father’s sometimes abject pleas for love nor visited his mother in her last years in a nursing home.”

A little later, Douglas quotes a Burroughs’ line from Queer: “I don’t mind people disliking me. The question is, what are they in a position to do about it?”

The whys and wherefores of Burroughs’ tough shell are related, to some degree, by Douglas, Grauerholz, and Burroughs himself through his writing, which all focused, ultimately, on himself. We learn details about his accidental (if wildly irresponsible) killing of his wife, Joan, by gunshot; his rebellion against his privileged upper-white-class inheritance (he was grandson of inventor William Seward Burroughs, who perfected the adding machine); his first experience with morphine, when he was a mere 13; his fascination with hoboes and gangsters; and similar such details, all of great interest and a welcome contribution to Burroughs scholarship.

In this respect, to the extent any single volume can simultaneously magnify and dissect an author’s legacy, Word Virus proves moderately successful in penetrating the hardened Burroughs mystique.

Still, I can’t help feeling there’s much more to be said about why Burroughs comes across generally as such a desiccated crank-case. Even with this book, Burroughs’ psyche remains shrouded in mystique. Has his pop-culture persona been built on a foundation no sturdier than the bamboo scaffoldings Burroughs must have stumbled past often after drinking all day and shooting up nights in those crumbling Latin American cities he once haunted?

Perhaps Grauerholz, as both intimate friend and executor of Burroughs’ literary estate, could not or would not expose the innermost feelings of the man he so obviously reveres. Then again, he would know as well or better than anyone whether there was something to be exposed. Whether Grauerholz held back or not, the casual reader has little way of knowing.

What remains to be written, it seems, is a memoir about Burroughs that looks into the man’s eyes and asks squarely: “What did you feel? ” The problem is, maybe Burroughs never supplied a straightforward answer.