2 October 2009

William S. Burroughs, Junky, 1953

For the proper experience this is one of those books that ought to be read as a first edition, with its cheap cover illustration that was meant to inspire a degree of horror towards heroin use in those who picked it up. Starting life as one half of an Ace Original double paperback, with fifty years hindsight it’s easy to see how Junky took the road from cheap pulp fiction to cult novel, and while Burroughs didn’t intentionally romanticise heroin use, today, like heroin itself, this kind of book or film is now mainstream. Under the thin disguise of ‘William Lee’ Burroughs is unapologetically confessional, yet Junky probably wouldn’t have made publication at all if he didn’t also display the redemptive element of repeatedly trying to kick his heroin habit (and instead fall back on the lesser social evils of morphine, coke, alcohol and petty crime), first in New York, later in New Orleans then Mexico City. Junky isn’t an alienating experience because Burroughs does not take you on that journey; instead his alienation arrived here fully formed with the everyday world already rendered meaningless – including his wife (who he killed between drafts of this book) and, for the most part, the law – and in replacement his junk habit was promoted to the almost everyday activity of a natural bodily function like sex, a mere extension of himself stripped of its negative and antisocial connotations. Burroughs’s writing is for the most part deadpan and functional yet he occasionally indulges in wonderfully descriptive and concise analyses of what’s going on beneath the skin – not his own skin or his own experiences while under, but the skins of those exterior horrors, other people, and these passages were an early root from which were later to come the excesses of Naked Lunch. This is a relatively safe book now, but it’s lost none of its immediacy.  PY


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