Burroughs and his `Van Gogh kick'

Literary Notes
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IN 1941, Jack Kerouac was attending Columbia College, in uptown New York, on a football scholarship. During one of his forays downtown, who knows, he might have exchanged glances with William Burroughs, then a stranger to him, as they passed on the street or stood next to one another in a bar.

Burroughs would have noticed the handsome young football player, but would have avoided being noticed in return; his own most outstanding characteristic was his invisibility. Whereas Kerouac was boisterous, rude, bubbling with enthusiasm - for music, for girls, for books and the adventures they promised - Burroughs was an accumulation of negatives; he appeared to others, in his own description, as "without context . . . perhaps a species of Homo non sapiens . . . completely anonymous."

Burroughs had applied to join the Navy, but was turned down as a poor physical specimen. Then he attempted to become a pilot in the Glider Corps, but was refused. In any case he was "fruit". He liked straight men in red-and-black wool check shirts (such as Kerouac favoured), though he himself usually dressed in a grey three-piece suit, with collar and tie, sometimes with gloves and snap-brim hat as well. Beneath the armour, an immovable individualism was being shaped.

In 1941, three years out of Harvard and living in the Taft Hotel on Seventh Avenue at 50th Street, Burroughs's daytime company consisted of the great writers and thinkers of the age - all between hard covers - while his evenings were spent in midtown saloons observing and occasionally communing with lowlifes and hustlers, palpably present in the flesh. He felt accepted in that company, by default. Times Square types, on the whole, didn't have Ivy League career assumptions about you, didn't compare membership of university clubs, or family trees. At the beginning of the war, Burroughs began the process of sloughing all that off; or, to use his own metaphor, "shitting it out".

Among the people he met in the subfusc bars was Jack Anderson, a part-time prostitute. There was a current expression about young chaps with slicked-back hair and seductive sharp cheekbones, that they "looked like the man in the Arrow collar ad". Jack Anderson fitted the type, and Burroughs fell for him; Anderson was "queer" but not a "fairy".

After Burroughs and his friend were surprised in bed by the house detective one afternoon, he had to leave the Taft Hotel. He followed Anderson to a boarding house in Greenwich Village. Burroughs moved in next door to him. What could be better? Only now he discovered that the time Anderson did not spend with him was lavished on other boyfriends, girlfriends, pick-ups, clients. He had less time for Burroughs than before. There was less and less to see of him anyway, consumed as he was by the sounds of chinking glasses, laughter and lovemaking filtering through the wall.

Burroughs found a solution to the maddening jealousy Anderson provoked in him in the action of a real-life artist and sociopath. A few years later, he liked to describe what he did as his "Van Gogh kick".

Driven out of the house yet again by Anderson's party noises, Burroughs bought a pair of poultry shears from a Sixth Avenue store. Back at his room, he placed the little finger of his left hand between the blades and cut it off. "Waves of euphoria swept through him," he wrote in an attempt to record the incident in fictional form. The severed finger lying on the dresser was sudden, welcome proof of his corporeal reality. After cleaning up the blood and swaddling the digit in a handkerchief, he left the rooming house. Next, he related,

He stopped in a bar and ordered a double brandy, meeting all eyes with a level, friendly stare. Goodwill flowed out of him for everyone he saw, for the whole world. A lifetime of defensive hostility had fallen from him.

James Campbell is the author of `This is the Beat Generation' (Secker & Warburg, 20 May, pounds 16.99)