Remembering William S. Burroughs
In his three-piece suit and fedora, he looked like an accountant — which is perversely fitting, since for most of his ultrabohemian life, William S. Burroughs made even the most outrageous of his fellow writers look buttoned-down.
Burroughs, 83, who died Aug. 2 of a heart attack in Lawrence, Kan., was more than simply the last survivor of the trio of writers — Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg — who defined the Beat movement. He was pop culture’s eminence grise, a writer who in his 70s and 80s had a cult following of twentysomethings. His grotesquely cosmic, comic, cartoonish, paranoid imagination fed directly into the rebellious adolescent precincts of the national psyche. ”Heavy metal” was lifted from his work. Steely Dan took their name from his most famous novel, Naked Lunch (1959), the book that effectively ended literary censorship in America after a federal court ruled in favor of its publication in 1962. He produced a single with Kurt Cobain and had cameos in such movies as Twister and Drugstore Cowboy. He even made a Nike commercial in 1994.
In 1951, Burroughs was in Mexico City — married but pursuing homosexual affairs — when he accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan. The incident, he later wrote, turned him into a writer: ”The death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” He also tried to write his way out of a long-term heroin addiction. (His first book, Junkie, was a graphic account of his drug battles.)
Burroughs said his randomly composed novels were ”all sort of one book.” Critics are divided on that book. Some pronounced him a visionary of the subtle addictions of modern life. Others thought him impenetrable and deranged. But by the time he settled in Lawrence in 1981 — writing, making paintings by shooting paint cans, giving campus readings — he was secure in his position as CEO of avant-garde alienation.