Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk" by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”Morphine hits the backs of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water. As this relaxing wave spread through my tissues, I experienced a strong feeling of fear. I had the feeling that some horrible image was just beyond the field of vision, moving as I turned my head, so that I never quite saw it. I felt nauseous; I lay down and closed my eyes. A series of pictures passed, like watching a movie: A huge, neon-lighted cocktail bar that got larger and larger until streets, traffic, and street repairs were included in it; a waitress carrying a skull on a tray; stars in a clear sky. The physical impact of the fear of death; the shutting off of breath; the stopping of blood.”
William S. Burroughs shortly after shooting his wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken version of William Tell. Were you just drunk Bill or were you on junk too?
Back in January of 2013 I decided to reread Naked Lunch. I hadn’t read Burroughs since college so the dim memories of the first read had very little impact on the second reading. It was like (a virgin) reading Burroughs for the very first time again. Readers have a wide range of opinions about Naked Lunch lurching from the ecstatic high of one of the best books they have ever read to believing the book to be perverted garbage. Burroughs would be thrilled with either reactions because that is what the book is about, creating a reaction. It is probably one of the most creative books I’ve read, but also a book that frequently made me very uncomfortable.
So given the success of my second reading of Naked Lunch I decided to read Burroughs first published work Junky (British title) or Junkie (American title). Burroughs insisted for a long time in calling the book Junk, but the publisher refused to put that label on the book believing that the American public might actually believe it to be just that...junk. Allen Ginsberg is the reason the book even exists. He’d been in correspondence with Burroughs and had been impressed by how intelligent and fascinating Bill’s letters were proving to be. Ginsberg insisted that Burroughs needed to thread his life, from those letters, into a book.
Allen Ginsberg, the man who was determined to see Junky in print.
Thus begins the odyssey of Junk/Junky/Junkie trying to make it into print.
”H and coke. You can smell it going in.”
Bill Lee, starts off selling a few caps to make some extra money. He has a small habit, but nothing more than recreational use. It is under control, more like going to see a movie once in a while or going out for a really good meal. Dealers, even small scale dealers like Bill, soon start to see the desperation of having a full blown habit.
”Doolie sick was an unnerving sight. The envelope of personality was gone, dissolved by his junk-hungry cells. Viscera and cells, galvanized into a loathsome insect-like activity, seemed on the point of breaking through the surface. His face was blurred, unrecognizable, at the same time shrunken and tumescent.”
Burroughs shooting up.
We all know someone odd, someone living an alternative bohemian lifestyle, someone floating in a constant haze of pharmaceutical diversion, but most of us know maybe one or two people that would fit that definition. Bill starts to know so many people that match that profile that it becomes normal.
”What a crew! Mooches, fags, four-flushers, stool pigeons, bums--unwilling to work, unable to steal, always short of money, always whining for credit. In the whole lot there was not one who wouldn’t wilt and spill as soon as someone belted him in the mouth and said “Where did you get it?”
And that is exactly what happens.
Bill gets picked up and it soon becomes apparent that a conviction is imminent. What was jamming Bill up was the Harrison Act of 1914. It was a tax meant to regulate the market, but was interpreted by the law as a way to prohibit the sale of opiates. William Burroughs’s uncle Horace committed suicide just days after the act was passed. He was addicted to morphine, the result of several medical procedures, and he couldn’t face the thought of living without the necessary solace of the drug.
A good lawyer gets Bill bail, based on his good family name, and Bill knowing he can’t handle jail heads for Mexico. Due to stress or just having the ready access to drugs soon has him becoming a full time junky. When he is on junk his sex drive is diminished, but when he is off the junk his libido becomes as all consuming as getting his next fix.
”Angelo’s face was Oriental, Japanese-looking, except for his copper skin. He was not queer, and I gave him money; always the same amount, twenty pesos. Sometimes I didn’t have that much and he would say ‘No importa.’ (It does not matter.) He insisted on sweeping the apartment out whenever he spent the night there.
Once I connected with Angelo, I did not go back to the Chimu. Mexico or stateside, queer bars brought me down.”
Bill likes boys, but he also likes girls, well...pros... like Mary.
”It you really want to bring a man down, light a cigarette in the middle of intercourse. Of course, I really don’t like men at all sexually. What I really dig is chicks. I get a kick out of taking a proud chick and breaking her spirit, making her see she is just an animal. A chick is never as beautiful after she’s been broken. ‘Say, this is sort of a fireside kick,’ she said, pointing to the radio which was the only light in the room.”
Both scenarios...Vintage Burroughs.
An Ace Original published in 1953. Burroughs made one cent on each copy sold. The book now sells in shabby condition for $450 and in collector’s condition for over a $1000.
So after a lot of arm twisting Ginsberg finally convinces the owner of Ace Books A. A. Wyn to publish Junkie. Wyn didn’t like the book, but his son Carl Solomon had done a stint with Ginsberg in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey and was also lobbying hard for the book to be published. There is a good lesson to be learned here, always use every opportunity to make new connections whether you are in a loony bin or attending an upscale cocktail party. You may find the same people both places.
Ginsberg had the thankless job of editing the book and being the middleman between a disgruntled publisher and a more and more recalcitrant Burroughs. Ginsberg was soon the only person in the equation that even cared if the book made it to print. Finally his dream is realized and the book is published as a paperback original Ace Double or what we used to call in the book biz a 69. The other book on the flip side was Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant which was a nonfiction account of busting drug dealers. Burroughs was at first furious at the pairing, but after reading the Helbrant book he grudgingly admitted it wasn’t too bad.
It is impossible to separate William S. Burroughs from Bill Lee (William Lee was his pen name and the name under which he published this book). The writing style in Junky is not anything like Naked Lunch. This book is very accessible, honestly told, and graphically realistic. You will meet a cast of characters with names like George the Greek, Pantopon Rose, Louie the Bellhop, Eric the Fag, the Beagle, the Sailor and Joe the Mex. You will come away from reading this book believing you have a better idea of Burroughs the man. He lived it and he didn’t pull any punches about what it means to be an addict.
”When you quit junk, everything seems flat, but you remember the shot schedule, the static horror of junk, your life draining into your arm three times a day. Every time exactly that much less. “
Being on junk is like resting in the arms of a beautiful woman, but if you stay on it too long those arms become withered and instead of looking into the face of angel you find yourself staring into the face of a toothless crone.
I’m hearing about this new kick called Yage. "Yage may be the final fix.”
If you haven't read my Naked Lunch review it is actually not too bad. Naked Lunch Review
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