Call Me Burroughs: A Life

William Seward Burroughs II — gentleman farmer, queer gangster, mama’s boy, experimental artist, absentee father, gun nut, bug exterminator, cheesy gumshoe — must have accounted for a considerable portion of Afghanistan’s GNP, when you consider the sheer tonnage of heroin he poked into his veins over four decades. Certainly enough to kill a horse, but not Bill Burroughs. When the allowance his parents gave him for the first fifty years of his life failed to cover his habit, he took to lush work: rolling drunks late at night in the subway. He was probably wearing a suit and tie; down and out, but never without a sense of decorum.

Barry Miles’s new biography of Burroughs, Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Miles already has William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible to his credit), rightly deserves to be called definitive, for there are only a finite number of hours in a lifetime, and Miles has nabbed pretty much every one of Burroughs’s. Call Me Burroughs has the detail of a genome project — and in his urgency to get it all down, it sometimes feels as though Miles’s thoughts outrace his typing: “One night Bill went down to raid the icebox at Price Road in the night” — the material coming in the staccato burps of automatic fire. The chronological design of the narrative is a blessing, taming an unruly life, and there are choice tidbits throughout, sparkling tesserae in the Burroughs mosaic.

Don’t turn to Call Me Burroughs for a critical reading of Burroughs’s books. There is enough of that, anyway. This is a “Candid Camera” of Burroughs’s peregrinations from his silver-spoon childhood in St. Louis to his final days back in the Midwest. Miles will get into Burroughs’s head, but he is invited in by Burroughs’s words and doesn’t presume postmortem psychoanalysis. Burroughs also left a handy paper trail, and when that wasn’t available, his wake of mayhem made it easy to track his movements.

Burroughs had the misfortune of being born into a family of considerable means, thanks to his grandfather’s invention of the adding machine. Money is the root of all evil, and idle hands are the devil’s playground — a couple of chestnuts that Burroughs could have had tattooed to his forehead. For fifty years he was able to live a narcissistic, infantile lifestyle that flirted with danger at every turn, not that Burroughs was oblivious: “My parents were paying the rent. They always did these things. This is terrible for me to think about. The point is they gave me a lot. I gave them fuck all!… No use pussyfooting around when you know you’ve been a miserable bastard and say that you’re anything else.”

A miserable bastard, but a fascinating one. Many very strange experiences went into making the mind that produced Naked Lunch, Cities of the Red Night, and The Place of Dead Roads. As a youth he had visions: “Billy saw a delicate little green reindeer, about the size of a cat, standing in a grove of trees.” There is the possibility that his nanny forced him to have oral sex with her boyfriend, leaving him haunted by the dark side. His mother doted on him, at one point telling him, “I worship the ground you walk on.” In a fit of irrational jealousy, he lopped off his fingertip when his first love rejected him. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with catatonic schizophrenia. When the army rejected him, too, he decided to become a “queer gangster” and returned to St. Louis to rub shoulders with the bottom feeders. He kept his homosexuality on the down-low — “I don’t know how or at what age it occurred to me that I was of another species” — and even Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac didn’t know he was gay for some years. El hombre invisible — with all the angst, heroin fit Burroughs like a bespoke suit.

While Burroughs was drawn to the seamy — of the sewage canal that ran behind his childhood home: “I liked the smell myself”; of William Garver, who enjoyed treating young kids to a shot of heroin: “Burroughs liked him nonetheless”; of Arnold Copeland, who carried a .25 automatic to start trouble with Mexicans: “Bill enjoyed his company” — Miles neither panders nor sensationalizes the tendency, though he sounds notes of sympathy when it came to drugs. Burroughs was on (and off and on again) heroin nearly his whole life, and it wasn’t pretty. “As the habit takes hold, other interests lose importance to the user. Life telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to the next,” wrote Burroughs. When it wasn’t junk, it was a panoply of other intoxicants, including booze, which brought Burroughs to the bottom of his very own barrel. “Put that glass on your head, Joanie, let me show the boys what a great shot old Bill is.” Joanie was Joan Vollmer, his wife, and Burroughs, drunk, killed her with a shot to the forehead.

Burroughs moved to Tangier, louche as ever, but now he began to write in earnest. Naked Lunch took shape. Remarkably, Miles’s chronicle, already brisk, accelerates. He introduces, and gives each at least a vest-pocket profile, a terrific parade of odd fellows: Alan Ansen, Lucien Carr, Gregory Corso, Kells Elvins, Brion Gysin, Anthony Balch, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Edie Parker, Ian Sommerville, Paul Bowles, James Grauerholz, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (“one could only truly know a country by seeing its prisons”). There are all sorts of cockamamie schemes — growing marijuana in Texas, searching for the drug yage in the wilds of the Amazon (“He was completely delirious for four hours, vomiting at ten-minute intervals”) — and a restlessness that Miles captures as he follows Burroughs to Mexico, Tangier (again and again), Paris, London, New York City, Boulder, and Lawrence (yes, Kansas). Though he doesn’t delve deeply into Burroughs’s art, Miles squares it to the overall picture: scorching the bourgeois novel, experimenting with cut-ups, photographic collages, jumpy films, shotgun painting. Only politics left him unfazed: “I was never tempted by any political program…. I don’t want to hear about the fucking masses and I never did.” And for someone who shunned the limelight, his influence has been significant.

Little wonder it took Miles 700 pages of small print to throw a canvas over Burroughs’s eighty-three years. It was a serious piece of work: unbridled, jolting, comic, obscene, transgressive, transformative. Burroughs felt that an “Ugly Spirit” possessed him, an ugly evil, greedy and grasping, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. He also thought that in the face of hopelessness and depression, he would have to write his way out. A saving grace, maybe, but unarguably inimitable.