William Burroughs has spent his life throwing stones at audiences. He is dedicated to the war against the hypocrisies of American puritanism, and is better known for his spectacular departures from conventional morality than he is for his books. He was publicly homosexual long before it was the done thing to come out of the closet. He has known the up and down sides of hard drugs. He shot and killed his wife while trying to perform a William Tell-type party trick during a binge in Mexico City.
After the tragedy, he sent their son to live with his parents and made little effort to stay in touch. William Jnr had a sad life. Born an addict (his mother had a Benzedrine habit) he came to maturity as a speed freak and alcoholic. Family friend Allen Ginsberg encouraged him to write, gave him jobs, and arranged a liver transplant for him when he was suffering from cirrhosis. Four drunken years later, he died, on the skids. Dad did not attend the funeral.
But few people have ever accused Burroughs of excessive loyalty. Although he has a long history of taking more from his nearest and dearest than he gives back, he has always managed to surround himself with pampering protectors to forgive him his trespasses. Barry Miles is one such friend, of 30 years' standing, and his biography is not a judgement but an appreciation.
Miles's purpose is to place Burroughs in the post-war cultural tradition. He uses the life to explicate the work and create what he calls a map of the author's consciousness: through Burroughs's intellectual development, he gives shape to a life that would otherwise seem crowded and aimless. Although Miles expects little background knowledge from his readers - at one point he feels obliged to explain what punks are - he offers a sophisticated analysis of his subject's progression from the variations of charades he played as a young man with fellow unknowns Ginsberg and Kerouac, to the routines of The Naked Lunch, to the cut-ups and sci-fi cosmologies of his later books and the late second career in painting that now occupies him in his retirement home in Lawrence, Kansas.
Burroughs's career at Harvard deserves more attention than it gets here, as his studies in anthropology clearly had an influence on his later thinking. The rest of the mental journey is well mapped, although some parts are more appealing than others. Burroughs's elaborate theory of addiction remains challenging: 'Leave a sick junkie in the back room of a drugstore, and only one result is possible. The same is true of anyone in a state of absolute hunger, absolute fear, etc. The more absolute the need, the more predictable the behavior becomes, until it is mathematically certain.' His later attempts to identify and expose the 'controllers' are, like his ventures into scientology and his ideas about the female sex (a gross error of biology), somewhat less attractive.
Despite Miles's blanket politeness, he does manage to make you understand his enthusiasm, if not for the man, then for the work that inspired what used to be called the counter-culture. After decades of imitators, no one can write a sentence like Burroughs. This book is a valiant attempt to give credit where credit is due.
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