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William S. Burroughs


  by William S. Burroughs

  Junky (1953)

  Naked Lunch (1959)

  The Soft Machine (1961)

  The Ticket That Exploded (1962)

  The Yage Letters (1963)

  Nova Express (1964)

  The Wild Boys (1971)

  Port of Saints (1973)

  Exterminator! (1973)

  Cities of the Red Night (1981)

  The Place of Dead Roads (1984)

  Queer (1985)

  The Western Lands (1987)

  Interzone (1989)

  The Cat Inside (1992)

  The Letters of William S. Burroughs: Volume I (1993)

  My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995)

  Word Virus: The Selected Writings of William S. Burroughs (1999)

  Last Words (2000)

  And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008)


  The Definitive Text of “Junk”

  William S. Burroughs

  Edited and with an Introduction by

  Oliver Harris

  Grove Press

  New York

  Copyright © 1953 by A. A. Wyn, Inc.

  Copyright © 1977, 1981 by William S. Burroughs

  Copyright © 2003 by the Estate of William S. Burroughs

  Introduction to the 1977 edition copyright © by the Estate of Allen Ginsberg

  Introduction copyright © 2003 by Oliver Harris

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval ­systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational ­institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or ­anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or [email protected]

  First published in the United States of America by Ace Books in 1953.

  This edition with material by Allen Ginsberg and edited with an introduction by Oliver Harris published by arrangement with Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Books

  Printed in the United States of America

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  ISBN: 978-0-8021-2042-7

  e-Book ISBN: 978-0-8021-9405-3

  Grove Press

  an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

  841 Broadway

  New York, NY 10003

  Distributed by Publishers Group West



  Editor’s Introduction





  1. Chapter 28 of the Original “Junk” Manuscript

  2. “Introduction” to the Original “Junk” Manuscript

  3. Letter from William Burroughs to A. A. Wyn [1959]

  4. “Junkie: An Appreciation” (1952) by Allen Ginsberg

  5. Carl Solomon’s Publisher’s Note in Junkie (1953)

  6. Foreword to Junkie (1964) by Carl Solomon

  7. Introduction to Junky (1977) by Allen Ginsberg



  I would like to thank James Grauerholz for all his scholarly support and generous practical help, not only on this project but over the years. Thanks also to John Bennett of Ohio State University; to the staff in Green Library at Stanford University; and to those in the Butler Library at Columbia University.

  For permission to quote previously unpublished materials, thanks are due to: Bob Rosenthal of the Allen Ginsberg Trust; and to Peter Matson.

  For permission to print previously published materials, thanks are due to HarperCollins.

  Finally, I’d like to dedicate this edition to Ian MacFadyen, for being quite simply a great reader of Burroughs.



  If you’re looking for books about narcotic addiction, the supply has never been better. There are social histories, public health polemics, and political critiques of the war on drugs; cultural studies and ethical analyses; surveys of narcotic legislation, addict psychology, pharmacology and treatment methods; personal memoirs, trash novels, and classic works of literature. The junkie is a modern icon, and heroin has a history and a mythology as well as a chemistry. And if you’re looking for books by William Burroughs, there are over two dozen to choose from, most if not all of which make reference to narcotics and addiction. Junk and Burroughs go together, he’s the addict-artist of the twentieth century, but he never wrote another book remotely like this, his very first.

  Descriptions such as “down-to-earth and honest prose”; “what you see is what you get”; “an honest account of the ‘vicious circle’ of addiction”—readers’ comments from an online bookstore Web site, these are not terms anyone would ever use for Nova Express, The Wild Boys, or The Western Lands. One thing you can say about any book by William Burroughs, however, is that whenever you think you’ve got it pinned down, that’s when it has just slipped between your fingers. This is true of the book you are holding now, even though, of all Burroughs’ works, it is the only one that is more often read outside the rest of the oeuvre than as part of it, devoured by readers who admit they choked on Naked Lunch, whereas this one, it seems, is a straight read from cover to cover.

  Both more and less than a record of Burroughs’ early years on heroin, this book is, to borrow a phrase from Luc Sante (author of Low Life, a classic study of crime and drugs), crowned with many hats. Having things to say about marijuana, cocaine, Benzedrine, Nembutal, peyote, yagé, and antihistamines, as well as opium and its derivatives, it’s halfway to being a pharmacopoeia. Reflecting Burroughs’ studies in anthropology (first at Harvard and then Mexico City College), it mimics the ethnographic field report, detailing the territories and habits of various urban American subcultures and documenting their emergence or decline in the immediate postwar era. Its attention to hipster idiom and criminal argot makes it a study of underworld linguistics. Not only does it recount the practices of narcotics police, lawyers, doctors, and psychiatrists in federal hospitals, but it also contains a surprising amount of information on the economics of crop farming, tips on the dynamics of luck, and meditations on loyalty and betrayal, existential loneliness, and the abject horrors of our own flesh. It is a work of journalistic reportage, a species of confessional autobiography, and a novel informed by Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, John O’Hara, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as the dialogue of Hollywood B movies. This is reckoned to be Burroughs’ one straightforward story, a simple, informative account written in a plain, dry style. But read it again and you come across little pearls of prose and strange, spectral images, weird moments of pure menace or utter ambiguity that give the lie to the notion of terse, gritty realism and whose effects are all the more unsettling because they didn’t seem to be there before. Read it a third time and, far from being dull and flat-footed, the writing now appears spry and subtle, capable of sharp comic touches and guilty of devious tricks. Look at it from different angles and the thing changes before your eyes, like a trompe l’oeil picture.
r />   This strange, double-take logic comes in many guises. Here’s just one variety. William Lee says: “You need a good bedside manner with doctors or you will get nowhere.” At first, the joke is on the doctors, and this looks like the deadpan irony of such phrases as “a hard-working thief,” and a host of others where normally positive cultural terms are given a deft, subversive twist. But look again and the key words are no longer “bedside manner” and “doctors” but the twice-repeated “you”: suddenly, Lee isn’t talking about doctors, he’s telling you how to score from them. This recurrent tactical trap, insinuating the reader’s complicity in the criminal world and making visible our voyeurism, is a unique feature of Burroughs’ style here. The closest equivalent to it is a line in Hammett’s Red Harvest: “He wasn’t the sort of man whose pocket you would try to pick unless you had a lot of confidence in your fingers”—which tempts us to wonder just how much confidence do we have in our fingers, whether to pick or not to pick the pocket? In other words: What side of the criminal fence are you really on, just where do you draw the line?

  It’s tempting to conclude that Burroughs’ chillingly cool and seductive book is complex and ironic, to say that its apparent simplicity is a sophisticated ruse designed to fool you, but this is too simple and won’t do either. In fact, Burroughs’ first novel is both absolutely distinct from everything he would write after it, and yet impossible to read without encountering at every turn phantom traces of the writing to follow. It’s like reading two books simultaneously, one atypically straight, the other characteristically twisted. This is its paradoxical situation, its destiny, as the original work of one of America’s great original writers.


  The story of how this debut novel came to be written in the first place, of how and why Burroughs began his career with it, this is a mystery that is bound to interest us. But our appetite for the hard facts is always balanced by an intuitive sense that the mystery of such beginnings should remain intact. Perhaps this is because writers must, at some level, remain mysteries to themselves in order to write at all, and we respect that truth as much as we want to violate it. In any event, there’s a contradiction here that goes to the heart of Burroughs’ novel, one captured in two of its most characteristic lines. “Here are the facts,” is the first of them, which promises to give us everything we want to know, and this the other, that takes it all back again: “There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you.”

  To get a measure of this book, and to understand what this new edition seeks to add to our appreciation of it, the simplest place to start is with the significant but unexpected mystery of what I have so far avoided—its title. Titles are not supposed to be mysterious. They’re meant to fix a work, to give it a clear identity, to define in miniature the author’s intention. Not so this one, whose history of slight but crucial changes is a version of the novel’s curious editing fate writ small.

  Burroughs began his “book about junk” at the dead center of the twentieth century, only a couple of months after relocating his family to Mexico City in late fall 1949. Escaping the punitive regime of Cold War America after a string of drug busts, Burroughs was beginning what would turn into a quarter of a century as a writer-in-exile. He broke the news to Jack Kerouac in a letter dated March 10, 1950, and interesting news it must have been. Five years earlier they had actually collaborated on a novel together, but whereas Kerouac was now more passionate than ever about his literary vocation—his own first novel, The Town and the City, had just been published—Burroughs had since given up on writing. In later years, he would say Kerouac was the one who kept telling him he was a writer, but there was no mention of this in March 1950. He called his novel simply “Junk,” and at the end of the year this was what he typed on the title page of his first-draft manuscript, followed by his nom de plume (borrowed from his character’s appearance in Kerouac’s novel): “William Dennison.” When the novel appeared in 1953, both title and pseudonym had changed. Junk by William Dennison had become Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict by William Lee.

  Burroughs himself chose the new name—a very equivocal choice, in fact: he said he needed a pseudonym to conceal his identity from his family, but perversely he chose “Lee,” his mother’s maiden name, and so revealed the very thing he claimed to want to hide. Both the title and subtitle, however, were chosen behind Burroughs’ back by the publishers, Ace Books, in one of a series of cuts and changes they forced on his novel. Allen Ginsberg, who at that time was acting as Burroughs’ agent, had already fought and lost the case before the deal with Ace was signed, in July 1952. “I really feel that JUNK is an inspired title,” he wrote to A. A. Wyn, the publisher, that April. “It’s funny, it’s straightforward, original, and yet very typical of junkie’s talk, and characteristic of author. I think it would be a real sad mistake to change, and advise against it.”1 Why was his advice and Burroughs’ choice ignored? According to Carl Solomon, who had acquired the book for Ace, it was because they thought it would give the impression the book was junk.

  These anecdotes tell us a good deal about Burroughs’ situation as a first-time novelist, and they hint at the larger story of writing and publishing in that particular era, but their interest doesn’t stop there. Almost twenty-five years later the title would change once again, this time to Junky, for the unexpurgated and expanded Penguin edition that has been in print since 1977. Burroughs authorized the changes made for that edition, but there was still one decision taken out of his hands. In August 1976, he wrote his agent Peter Matson: “I would suggest that the title of this new edition be JUNK, rather than JUNKIE. JUNK was the original title which I gave the book, and this was changed by A. A. Wyn for reasons unknown to me.” The next month, Matson reported the verdict of Penguin’s editor: “Dick Seaver likes JUNKY, thinking that, without the ‘Y’ it sounds too much like garbage, if you’ll excuse the expression.”2

  Taken together, what do these identical behind-the-scenes anecdotes about a title add up to? From an editor’s point of view, they make visible the sheer contingency of Burroughs’ novel, the part played in it by chance events or the decisions of others, only some of which can ever be known. From a critical point of view, they offer a different kind of warning about “the facts,” since interpretations of literature are typically based on silent assumptions that may well turn out to be false. In their different ways, Ginsberg, A. A. Wyn, and Richard Seaver all knew that a book called Junk means something quite different to one called Junkie or Junky. And more generally, these anecdotes give an absolutely material dimension to the truism that we never read the same novel twice. Every book changes to some extent over time and in new contexts, but Burroughs’ first novel has changed literally again and again in name and in content. You might think that the author’s own wishes should finally be respected now, albeit posthumously, and this new edition be given the title Junk. However, publishing remains as bound by pragmatic concerns today as it was twenty-five or fifty years ago, and the fact is that, in the end, the sales department is right: in bookstores, people will still go on asking for Junky. But in scholarly circles, too, another change would only mean one more confusion because, over time, the familiar title has accrued a body of meanings, a certain weight, a particular status: for better or worse, Junky is canonical now. And so it has been left to the subtitle—The Definitive Text of “Junk”—to indicate that this text represents the last stage in a fifty-year history. The aim of this edition, then, is to clarify and settle that history, and to do so by going back to Burroughs’ original manuscripts, to fully restore the original text, if not his original choice of its title.


  How autobiographical is Junky? Or to put it another way, what relation does William Burroughs have to William Lee? These questions need answering because Burroughs’ first novel was the most mined source of information about his life for some thirty-fi
ve years, until publication of Ted Morgan’s biography in 1988. In particular the Prologue, where Burroughs filled in the narrative’s missing background, used to be taken as a wholly reliable biographical resource: most of the details do turn out to be correct, even the most unlikely ones (case records from the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic prove that Burroughs’ doctors really had “never heard of Van Gogh,” for example), but recent Burroughs criticism has nevertheless shown the artful, rather than artless nature of its presentation of facts. And what of the rest of the narrative? Ginsberg was first to point out the obvious in the “Appreciation” he wrote in 1952 (see Appendix 4): “It is the autobiography of one aspect of the author’s career, and obviously cannot be taken as an account of the whole man.” Now that we have two biographies (the other by Barry Miles), a volume of letters covering the period, and a mass of interviews, journalism, and critical material, it’s possible to see just how partial the account given really is.

  Rather than go into the fine details of the narrative’s accuracy or selectivity, it is, I think, more instructive to focus on the holes in it that are so large they are easy to overlook. For example, there are portraits of Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler who passed the word “beat” to Kerouac and who appears in Junky as Herman, and of the thief Phil White, a.k.a. “the Sailor,” to whom Burroughs initially planned to dedicate his novel and who appears in it as Roy. But there’s not one word referring to the two key figures he befriended at this time—Ginsberg and Kerouac. These significant absences make for a revealing contrast to Kerouac’s work: although Burroughs read The Town and the City just weeks into the writing of his own first novel, Junky did not follow that path of group myth-making, autobiographical fiction that characterized Beat Generation writing.

  There is also very little about his wife, Joan Vollmer Adams. Given his focus, there was never going to be much, but after the shooting accident in September 1951 that killed her, Burroughs was put on the spot when Ace pressured him for more: “About death of Joan. I do not see how that could be worked in,” he wrote Ginsberg in April 1952. “I did not go into domestic life in Junk because it was, in the words of Sam Johnson, ‘Nothing to the purpose.’”3 Later that month he complained that Ace’s demands left him feeling like a man “being sawed in half by indecisive fiends,” but it’s clear from following letters that the indecision was his own, as were the fiends: “If they want it I will write it. Alternatively they could simply cross out all references to her.” In the end, the disappearance of Lee’s wife, like her presence, remains anomalous: occasional references have the unsettling effect of making the reader want either more, or none at all.