Call Me Burroughs: A Life

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Overview

Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer asserted, "William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius." Few since have taken such literary risks, developed such individual political or spiritual ideas, or spanned such a wide range of media. Burroughs wrote novels, memoirs, technical manuals, and poetry. He painted, made collages, took thousands of photographs, produced hundreds of hours of experimental recordings, acted in movies, and recorded more CDs than most rock ...

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Overview

Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer asserted, "William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius." Few since have taken such literary risks, developed such individual political or spiritual ideas, or spanned such a wide range of media. Burroughs wrote novels, memoirs, technical manuals, and poetry. He painted, made collages, took thousands of photographs, produced hundreds of hours of experimental recordings, acted in movies, and recorded more CDs than most rock bands. Burroughs was the original cult figure of the Beat Movement, and with the publication of his novel Naked Lunch, which was originally banned for obscenity, he became a guru to the 60s youth counterculture. In CALL ME BURROUGHS, biographer and Beat historian Barry Miles presents the first full-length biography of Burroughs to be published in a quarter century-and the first one to chronicle the last decade of Burroughs's life and examine his long-term cultural legacy.
Written with the full support of the Burroughs estate and drawing from countless interviews with figures like Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Burroughs himself, CALL ME BURROUGHS is a rigorously researched biography that finally gets to the heart of its notoriously mercurial subject.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Ann Douglas
In Call Me Burroughs, his authoritative new biography, Barry Miles avoids unduly romanticizing Burroughs's outlaw status…Nor, wisely, does Miles minimize the depth and tenacity of Burroughs's addictions…Miles's book is emphatically not, however, the familiar story of a gifted writer's substance-soaked decline, probably for the simple reason that Burroughs's genius for surreal black comedy tempered with hard, practical thought never deserted him…Although he occasionally simplifies Burroughs's story…[Miles's] access and wealth of detail will make this the go-to biography for many years to come.
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/09/2013
The pioneering American countercultural writer and artist William Burroughs emerges as his own greatest character in this raucous biography. Biographer and Burroughs editor Miles (Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats) pens a dense, detailed, yet wonderfully readable and entertaining narrative that illuminates, without sensationalizing, Burroughs’s manifold peculiarities: his avid sexual interest in teenaged boys; his use of hashish, hallucinogens, and heroin; his petty crimes and drug-dealing; his love of casual gunplay (he fatally shot his wife during a game of William Tell); his obsession with other-worldly phenomena, from Scientology, to UFO abductions, to his own theories of giant intergalactic insects that control everything; his hair-trigger psychodramas with intimates and complete strangers; his embrace of every experience, especially those that appalled and disgusted him; the fastidious manners and banker’s wardrobe that made his anti-social provocations seem even more subversive. Miles’s exhaustively researched account draws on the writer’s blunt, self-revealing private writings along with reminiscences from Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and other associates to flesh out Burroughs’s personality, surroundings, and equally colorful circle of acquaintances, who were forever doing interesting things like getting mauled by lions. Miles just puts it all on paper with aplomb and deadpan wit, showing how the gross-out surrealism of Burroughs’s fiction flowed from the lurid creativity of everyday life.Agent: James Macdonald Lockhart, the Antony Harwood Agency (U.K.). (Jan.)
William Gibson
"One long, strange, profoundly American literary life. Burroughs's work has had a profound if often oblique influence on the writing of his century and this one. I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to read Barry Miles's biography without being thoroughly familiar with the outline of the narrative. Truly, stranger than fiction."
Victor Bockris
"CALL ME BURROUGHS takes us deeply inside the magical life of the great writer. Miles's decision to tell the epic story through William Burroughs's search for his 'Ugly Spirit' makes for sensational reading. Brilliant, tragic, controversial, and inspiring, CALL ME BURROUGHS is a beautiful work."
Ira Silverberg
"CALL ME BURROUGHS is the most intimate portrait to date of one of the twentieth century's most complicated, troubled, and influential figures. Miles's deep knowledge of the man and the work also provides a cultural history of the scene in Tangiers in the 1950s, the Beat era, and the emerging Punk scene in New York in the 1980s. It is a compelling biography and social history unlike any other."
Bill Morgan
"CALL ME BURROUGHS is full of energy and surprise and is a delight to read. Barry Miles combines his intimate knowledge of Burroughs with the meticulous research of Burroughs's companion James Grauerholz, to produce an extremely accurate, readable, and entertaining biography of one of the most inventive writers of the twentieth century. Reading this extraordinary book is like hanging around with Burroughs himself and is impossible to forget."
Regina Weinreich
"By any standard Burroughs's was an unusual life, full of scandal, subversion, and sensitivity hidden behind a cold blue gaze. Miles enriches this 'life of an artist' with decades of dedicated immersion in the work both published and unpublished, digging deep into archival material and manuscripts, incorporating journals of friends and acquaintances. With great authority and verve, he brings up to date the legacy of a true American original who grows, even years after his death, in fascination."
From the Publisher
"The Burroughs of Miles's 600-plus pages is both ghastlier and more impressive than previous models, sliding through the world like a cross between Sam Spade and Flat Stanley."'—The Atlantic

"CALL ME BURROUGHS is riddled with... weird anecdotes laced with gallows humor, bizarre coincidences and profane punch lines. It's a massive undertaking made complicated by Burroughs' peripatetic lifestyle and rampant drug use. To say he was a difficult man to pin down is understatement, but Miles is up to the task."—LA Times

"Miles just puts it all on paper with aplomb and deadpan wit, showing how the gross-out surrealism of Burroughs's fiction flowed from the lurid creativity of everyday life."—Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)

"One long, strange, profoundly American literary life. Burroughs's work has had a profound if often oblique influence on the writing of his century and this one. I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to read Barry Miles's biography without being thoroughly familiar with the outline of the narrative. Truly, stranger than fiction."—William Gibson

"CALL ME BURROUGHS takes us deeply inside the magical life of the great writer. Miles's decision to tell the epic story through William Burroughs's search for his 'Ugly Spirit' makes for sensational reading. Brilliant, tragic, controversial, and inspiring, CALL ME BURROUGHS is a beautiful work."—Victor Bockris, author of With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, Conversations with William Burroughs and Andy Warhol, and Burroughs in the Bunker

"CALL ME BURROUGHS is the most intimate portrait to date of one of the twentieth century's most complicated, troubled, and influential figures. Miles's deep knowledge of the man and the work also provides a cultural history of the scene in Tangiers in the 1950s, the Beat era, and the emerging Punk scene in New York in the 1980s. It is a compelling biography and social history unlike any other."—Ira Silverberg, co-editor of Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader

"CALL ME BURROUGHS is full of energy and surprise and is a delight to read. Barry Miles combines his intimate knowledge of Burroughs with the meticulous research of Burroughs's companion James Grauerholz, to produce an extremely accurate, readable, and entertaining biography of one of the most inventive writers of the twentieth century. Reading this extraordinary book is like hanging around with Burroughs himself and is impossible to forget."—Bill Morgan, author of I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and The Typewriter Is Holy

"By any standard Burroughs's was an unusual life, full of scandal, subversion, and sensitivity hidden behind a cold blue gaze. Miles enriches this 'life of an artist' with decades of dedicated immersion in the work both published and unpublished, digging deep into archival material and manuscripts, incorporating journals of friends and acquaintances. With great authority and verve, he brings up to date the legacy of a true American original who grows, even years after his death, in fascination."—Regina Weinreich, author of Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics and editor of Kerouac's Book of Haikus

Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-07
A ponderous revisiting of the strange and terrible life of the godfather of America's Beat movement. In this strange season for literary biographies, we've already worked through J. Michael Lennon's warm but thorough portrait of a combative Norman Mailer and the controversial and revelatory Salinger, by David Shields and filmmaker Shane Salerno. William Burroughs (1914–1997) is an equally bizarre figure whose hallucinatory and experimental works of art and unpredictable journey rained influence down the generations from Jack Kerouac to Kurt Cobain. This wedge of biographical examination is no less doorstop-worthy but hardly the definitive biography of the mad genius of Lawrence, Kan. First of all, Miles (In the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, 2011, etc.) carries some fairly weighty credibility, having known Burroughs and his contemporaries from 1965 on. However, the author has already exhaustively covered the Beat movement in numerous biographies, not least in William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible (1993). Here, it's seldom that we hear that laconic drawl and snarling wit that Burroughs carried into old age, which is clearly missed. Instead, Miles goes down the well-worn path of meticulously tracking his subject through time and place instead of through attitude and output. Even the pivot point of the novelist's life--the 1951 misadventure in Mexico during which Burroughs shot and killed his wife--elicits little in the way of emotional insight into that furious whirlwind. Answers from a man the author knew and interviewed many times could have changed the way Burroughs is painted; pointing instead to a confessional sliver of text from the Tom Waits collaboration The Black Rider is avoidance. While segments about the writing of groundbreaking works like Naked Lunch and heroin-fueled binges in Tangiers and Paris are satisfyingly voyeuristic, the biography is ultimately neither sensational enough to court controversy nor keen enough to be useful to future scholars.
Library Journal
12/01/2013
In addition to writing extensive histories and biographies on the Beat movement, London underground culture, and 1960s music titans, Miles (Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now) was also friend and editor to William S. Burroughs (1914–97). This book's title comes from Burroughs's debut recording of the same name, which Miles had a hand in releasing. Drawing from thousands of conversations, interviews, writings, recordings, and other sources, this work all but resurrects Burroughs in print as it documents the roots and development of his mysterious creative techniques. His personality is a unique mix of "newscaster," monk, and junkie, and Miles explores the influence of cultures such as Tangiers and Mexico on the man, both personally and artistically. A meticulous description of each of his love and sex interests (the vast majority men and boys) is provided as is a thorough portrait of his place among various literary luminaries (e.g., Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac). This is a complete biography, and as such it is important to understand that since Burroughs had some repetition in his life, many parts of the book are repetitious as well. For this reason, a shorter biography of only part of his life, such as Jorge García-Robles's The Stray Bullet (reviewed above), may be more suitable. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers of Burroughs, Beat historians, and fans of Beat lit, biography, LGBT lit, and experimental artists.—Benjamin Brudner, Curry Coll. Lib., Milton, MA
The Barnes & Noble Review

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 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 Mile'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.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455511952
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 736
  • Sales rank: 104,490
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Barry Miles is the author of many seminal books on popular culture, including the authorized biography of Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now; Ginsberg: A Biography; William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible; Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats; and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. He also co-edited the Revised Text Edition of Naked Lunch. Miles was born in Cirencester, England.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Burroughs would have loved Hector's Juice!

    Burroughs would have loved Hector's Juice!

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