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Junky, Page 2

William S. Burroughs

  Burroughs’ indecision suggests the difficulty he had in maintaining, over time, a consistent relation to his persona and therefore a single style of writing. At first, the chronology of his experience provided a minimal structure—you couldn’t call it a “plot”—but this would come to pose increasing problems. In part, this was because Burroughs had a technical and temperamental difficulty with sustaining realist narrative, a conventional weakness he would later turn into an experimental advantage. Indeed, in the effort to keep it “straight,” he decided to cut some of the most interesting sections, which he recognized as digressions from the main narrative line. But the problem can only have become worse as he ceased writing about events set safely in the past, and began having to deal with experiences from the more immediate present. Living with the trauma of a self-inflicted tragedy, and unable either to write about it or to ignore its effects, Burroughs completed Junky during increasingly difficult times, and in the last quarter of the novel it shows.

  If there was a logic to excluding his fellow writers Ginsberg and Kerouac, this doesn’t explain another key decision, namely why Burroughs made his alter ego so un-literary: the passing references Lee makes to popular culture (George Raft, Jimmy Durante, Louis Armstrong—an interesting trio) contrast sharply to those he makes in Queer, the novel he wrote while still finishing Junky (Frank Harris and Jean Cocteau). In letters, Burroughs would sometimes call opium “Cocteau’s kick,” referring to Opium: Diary of a Cure, but such an allusion to the French writer would be completely out of place for the Lee of Junky. In fact, there are European literary references in the Prologue—to “Oscar Wilde, Anatole France, Baudelaire, even Gide”—although they’re used to distinguish the young Burroughs/Lee from “an American boy of that time and place.” The Prologue is also the place where Burroughs speaks of being “greatly impressed by an autobiography of a burglar, called You Can’t Win,” and in many ways this is the key reference, the one that tells us most about Junky and the particular relation it fashions between literature and life.

  Sixty years after reading it for the first time, Burroughs took the chance to pay back the pseudonymous Jack Black by writing a foreword to the republication of You Can’t Win (New York: Amok Press, 1988). Here Burroughs recalls how he was “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat houses and opium dens, of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles.” There are two things to say about this, one self-evident, the other easily missed. The first is the sheer pleasure Burroughs takes in the lingo of Jack Black’s wild frontier locales, the way he savors the phrases, so clearly redolent for him of a lost world, of a nighttime netherworld glazed with a sheen of nostalgia. Burroughs, who also enjoyed the colorful urban world of Damon Runyon, had a double fascination with the criminal milieu and its vivid argot that is reflected throughout Junky. He would have found this in You Can’t Win (“The underworld is quick to seize upon strange words,” Black observes), and probably a little later in David Maurer’s The Big Con (1940), a classic work on the routines and slang of the confidence man in his Golden Age, up to the early 1920s.4 Maurer’s rich gallery of grifters belonged to the vivid but vanishing life that lay outside the sheltered suburbs of Burroughs’ midwestern childhood, and in Junky he brought something like it alive: Subway Mike, George the Greek, Pantopon Rose, Louie the Bellhop, Eric the Fag, and the Black Bastard—these are blood relatives of the Hashhouse Kid and Slobbering Bob in Maurer’s book or the Sanctimonious Kid, Smiler, and Salt Chunk Mary in Jack Black’s.

  Prompted by such sources, in Junky, Burroughs shows his grasp of the different functions served by a specialized argot. We see how it can map the thief’s or addict’s clandestine life and make it seem a whole alternative world: “Life telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to the next, ‘stashes’ and ‘scripts,’ ‘spikes’ and ‘droppers.’” For the addict, the slang also doubles the social role of the substance itself. “Heroin was our badge,” said Rodney King, onetime partner of Charlie Parker, the great bebop junkie. “It was the thing that said, ‘we know. You don’t know.’ It was the thing that gave us membership in a unique club, and for this membership we gave up everything else in the world.”5 Alert to the decline of old subcultures and the emergence of new ones, late on in Junky, Burroughs reports news of changes in the New York scene since he was last there, to suggest how a shift in key terms can define an existence, and, like passwords, admit entry into it: “I learned the new hipster vocabulary: ‘pot’ for weed, ‘twisted’ for busted, ‘cool,’ an all-purpose word.”

  Cab Calloway in A Hepster’s Dictionary said the term hip meant “wise, sophisticated, anyone with boots on”—where the last phrase signifies living on the street, being streetwise—and Burroughs must have been drawn by this sense that an outsider from official culture gets to possess insider knowledge, gets to know the score. His own glossary definition of hip spells out this logic as a sly challenge to the reader: “The expression is not subject to definition because, if you don’t ‘dig’ what it means, no one can ever tell you.” As Burroughs would show at the start of Naked Lunch, a square who “wants to come on hip” makes a perfect mark; to the reader hungry for the vicarious thrill of knowledge without the risk of experience, Junky gives a warning all the better to set the trap, like one of Maurer’s con games.

  Early on in You Can’t Win, Black describes his youthful fascination with Jesse James—this would be the early 1880s—and concludes: “Looking back now I can plainly see the influence the James boys and similar characters had in turning my thoughts to adventure and later to crime.” Adventure and crime: the point Burroughs makes in his Prologue to Junky is that, trapped in an haute bourgeois suburb of St. Louis and insulated from city life by his family’s money, the terms appeared synonymous. You Can’t Win surely turned Burroughs’ thoughts to adventure and crime, and later to writing. But there remains one thing that goes unsaid in the Prologue, and is only hinted at in passing in Burroughs’ Foreword to You Can’t Win, via the phrase “opium dens.” Although this is absolutely typical of Junky—in giving autobiographical details that are entirely accurate, while omitting to provide the key—the question arises: why did Burroughs neglect to mention the fact that Jack Black was an addict, when this was surely a part of his book’s allure for the young Burroughs and so directly relevant to Junky?

  The most likely explanation is that he wanted to avoid any suggestion of the literariness of both his experiences and his own writing, the idea that either were inspired by reading books. This move helped keep Junky at a clear remove from the great Romantic tradition, of Coleridge and De Quincey, that he knew so well. If Burroughs stripped Lee of his own literary knowledge and ambition, and gave priority to the anonymous confessions of an American thief rather than to Romantic poets or European modernists, it was surely because he wanted his writing to appear with boots on.


  Looking back from the vantage point of half a century, the tribute that Burroughs himself would pay to You Can’t Win can just as well be said of Junky: “He has recorded a chapter of specifically American life that is now gone forever.” In summer 1952, however, as he worried over negotiations with A. A. Wyn, Burroughs had very contemporary works in mind. In June he wrote Ginsberg: “Is he or is he not going to publish JUNK? Two books already out on the subject—DOWN ALL YOUR STREETS and H IS FOR HEROIN. I think this beginning of deluge. NOW is time to publish or we bring up rear and lose advantage of timeliness. . . . Subject is hot now but it won’t be hot long.”6 Although he was wrong on the last score—the subject would never cool down—his reference points here are revealing.

  Down All Your Streets, a long first novel about crime and drugs in New York City, won modest critical acclaim as well as good sales for Leonard Bishop when Dial Press published it in 1952. David Hulburd’s H Is for Heroin (“A Teen-Age Narcotic Tells Her Story”) was a twenty-five-cent paperback from the Popular Library.
By this point, Burroughs had accepted that Ace, a relatively new, middle-range player in the pulp paperback industry, was his best bet for Junky. But to begin with he had his sights set on New Directions, the one-man press run by James Laughlin, famous for his extraordinary list of modernist literature and for publishing interesting new talent.

  For over a year both Ginsberg and Kerouac had lobbied Laughlin on Burroughs’ behalf by recommending Junky, Kerouac closing a letter in February 1952 with the telling lines (given him by Ginsberg): “It would be a shame if it was eventually swallowed up by cheap paper covered 25 cent Gold Medal or Signet books like ‘I, Mobster.’”7 The Ace Double Book publication of Junkie (bound back-to-back with a reprint of Maurice Helbrant’s memoir, Narcotic Agent, and priced at thirty-five cents) put Burroughs firmly in the drugstore and newsstand pulp market rather than on the serious hardback shelves. It’s not an entirely idle thought to wonder what would have happened to Burroughs’ first novel as an imprint not of Ace Books but of New Directions—both in terms of reception (the Ace edition sold over a hundred thousand copies in its first year, but none to literary reviewers) and also in terms of actual content. As we’ll see in more detail below, in important ways the final form and content of Junkie were shaped directly and indirectly by its publishers.

  The market that Burroughs was destined to enter also made for a telling contrast to a much more famous novel on the subject that he must have known: Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the book had made Algren an instant celebrity in 1950, and his depiction of Frankie Machine, the low-life, poker-dealing junkie of the title, had an equal impact: as David Courtwright notes in his history of opiate addiction in America, Algren’s hero marked a crucial generational shift in the cultural stereotype of the addict, now defined for the postwar public in the image of the hustling street criminal.8 The irony, however, is that Algren’s literary ambition and experience of narcotics were aloof from street level. In fact, it was his agent who encouraged him to use junk as a peg for his plot at a time when Algren, corresponding with Simone de Beauvoir and financed by literary fellowships, barely knew any actual junkies.

  In March 1950, while Burroughs was beginning work on Junky, Algren was receiving invitations to Hollywood (the movie of his novel, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Frank Sinatra, came out in 1955), and was being presented with the National Book Award for Fiction by Eleanor Roosevelt at the Waldorf-Astoria. While the prospect of the latter fate would not have tempted Burroughs, it’s necessary to see how materially the publishing context defined by Ace Books ensured that in 1953 Burroughs’ novel, not printed under his own name or even using his title, bypassed any chance of a literary reputation or critical reception.

  In 1952 Burroughs was well aware that the subject of Junky was hot, in several senses of the word. From a publishing point of view, it was the type of story that would sell paperbacks, a new and booming industry. But the paranoid and reactionary national mood—this was the era of McCarthyism—meant that the subject was also dangerous to handle. Amid wider fears about popular culture and its capacity to incite imitation, the paperback industry was itself subject to congressional investigation in 1952, and found guilty. A pulp novel about drug addiction therefore combined two moral panics for the price of one.

  Junkie was a product of these times, as Ace Books sought both to exploit the interest—packaging the novel inside an especially lurid and voyeuristic cover—and to defend their backs, by inserting a series of nervous disclaimers. This attempt to censor Burroughs’ novel had unforeseen ironic effects, however. Perversely, the notes inserted into the text imply one of two things: either that whenever there isn’t a disclaimer or a rebuttal (“This statement is hearsay,” or “This is contradicted by recognized medical authority”), the text can only be telling the truth; or that this censorious voice is inadvertently pinpointing the really important facts. Ace also added a Publisher’s Note (see Appendix 5), which proposed the novel’s function as a deterrent; it would, they claimed, “discourage imitation by thrill-hungry teen-agers.” The irony of these measures would not have been lost on Burroughs, and his original introduction to “Junk” (see Appendix 2) spelt out his own position in blunt terms: “Official propaganda opposes any factual statement about junk, so that almost nothing accurate has been written on the subject.” Cutting through the myths mattered because, as he knew from firsthand experience as an addict, America in 1950 was at the peak of a postwar epidemic. Whatever else it is, Junky remains a precise eyewitness report to essential changes on the ground.

  Early on and near the end of Junky, Burroughs makes reference to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. The key statute in the history of addiction legislation, the act was actually drafted as a tax measure to regulate the market, but it was soon interpreted as a law prohibiting the supply of opiates. Born in February 1914, Burroughs’ life coincided with the world of narcotic prohibition, although the coincidence had not only a symbolic meaning, but a close family connection. After becoming addicted to morphine in the course of medical treatment, his uncle, Horace Burroughs, committed suicide just days after the Harrison Act came into effect in March 1915; finding his condition suddenly criminalized was too much for Burroughs’ already troubled uncle, but he was only among the first of many such victims. Interestingly, however, in Junky, Burroughs doesn’t single out the Harrison Act as the event that forced addicts into a world of crime because it cut off their legal supplies. He therefore avoided making a case that recent historians of addiction have shown to be something of a popular myth, a simplification that overlooks the emergence of addict subcultures well before the national legislation. Rather, Burroughs observes a range of behavior that details the transformation of narcotic use over a forty-year period with remarkable accuracy and eye for significant detail.

  Take the very first reference in the book. In the Prologue, Burroughs describes as a child hearing his maid talk about opium smoking, and records its impact on him: “I will smoke opium when I grow up.” The truth of this anecdote does not depend on whether it actually happened, but on its historical accuracy. According to David Courtwright, the white, as distinct from Chinese, opium smoker emerged in America in the late nineteenth century, and was always associated with the lower-class underworld: prostitutes, gamblers, petty criminals—even unsavory maids caring for the impressionable sons of haute bourgeois families. Indeed, there were widespread fears that opium smoking was spreading to the upper classes, especially the idle rich. The decadent aristocrat enchanted by the opium pipe became a stock character, an image Burroughs would later parody in a self-portrait that continued where the Prologue to Junky left off: “As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit.”9 But besides the aristocratic and artistic associations, the opium smoker is a significant first reference because when imports of smoking material were banned, under the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, the use of heroin accelerated to take its place.

  Heroin’s rise coincided with a major shift in the profile and milieu of the typical addict, and the substance of these changes is documented in Burroughs’ novel through details that might otherwise appear insignificant. To give only a few isolated examples: Junky begins in New York in 1945, the urban center of heroin use at the point when supply lines resumed after wartime shortages; Burroughs gives the moniker “Short Count Tony” to his Italian connection on the Lower East Side, and it was when Italian gangsters replaced Jewish dealers that the purity of street heroin declined sharply, which in turn led to a rise in intravenous use to maximize the hit; the key transformation in addiction, the reason it moved into the underworld, was the shift from its medical origins, so that a character like Matty, encountered by Lee in Lexington, defines the older generation (“A doctor had got Matty on stuff. ‘The Jew bastard,’ Matty said . . . ‘But I made him wish he’d never seen me�
��”); early on, Burroughs focuses on a particular Broadway block to define the territory as well as type of addict (“The hipster-bebop junkies never showed at 103rd Street. The 103rd Street boys were all oldtimers”), so making an important spatial and temporal distinction that anticipates the one he gives later on in Mexico (“No zoot-suiters. The hipster has gone underground”), which in turn conveys an ethnic dimension (zoot suits, with broad, padded shoulders, were worn by Mexican-Americans, and associated with racial tension and riots in southern California during 1943) and marks the rise of a true heroin counterculture; the end of Junky describes the “nationwide hysteria” that spread from the “police-state legislation” passed in Louisiana, referencing the Boggs Act of 1951, which imposed harsh mandatory sentences at a time when the postwar epidemic was actually in decline—a sign, as Burroughs claimed in a letter at this time, that the “real significance of these scandalous laws is political.”

  Finally, the long section of Junky set in the Public Health Service Narcotic Hospital at Lexington is especially significant, because it gives a firsthand description of the key federal institution, important not only for the treatment of addiction, but for medical research (from the 1950s, this included secret CIA experiments) and the development of policy over four decades. Lexington opened in 1935 when addiction was seen in public health terms as a contagious sickness, and the narcotic farm was designed, as Caroline Acker has shown, to segregate addicts out of the prison system and, maybe, to rehabilitate them using techniques of moral and social adjustment.10 In 1946, Lexington’s intake was 600; in 1949, there were nearly 3,000 admissions; in 1950, over 5,500. This massive increase featured two key demographic changes: as Jill Jonnes notes, there were 214 black admissions in 1949; in 1950, the figure was 1,460. The other feature was an equally spectacular rise in the number of young addicts, and in 1951 a special new juvenile ward was opened to cope with the problem; as Bill Gains says, with a gloating smile for emphasis, “Yes, Lexington is full of young kids now.”