You'd think Herbert Huncke would be a household name. But as the poor attendance at his first date in London last week testified, Huncke is the sort of literary footnote people tend to overlook. Not that this bothers him. Down into the cold, subterranean Underwood Street Studios he shuffles, hunched inside a large navy overcoat, a frail 5ft 5in high. Dark hair immaculately groomed, grey eyes blinking curiously out of a cadaverous mask, lungs gasping for air.
Herbert Huncke is unwell. "We could all of us go at any minute, it's just that in Mr Huncke's case that's particularly true," gushes Suzanne Hines, the tour organiser. He's got chronic asthma, he needs federal permission to get out of the States on account of the methadone programme he's on, but boy, does he look good. Just right for the part of tough, seen-it- all low-lifer. "I apologise. My breathing's not all it should be," he announces drily, sitting at a table on a stage furnished only with a mike, a desk lamp, his papers and a can of Coke. He has just snorted a line and seems unaffected by the gloom.
"Sometimes I can sit after having taken a shot of heroin for several hours completely absorbed by visions of places and people," he begins, reading from his 1968 collection The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. His writing is almost indistinguishable from his conversation - he himself calls it "talking"; by turns melancholic, eloquent, and awkward, peppered with asides ("As it seemed to me; As one might term it; And so it goes"). We are given snapshots of New York following his defection from middle-class Chicago at 17 to join assorted thieves, male and female prostitutes and "characters". There's the hermaphrodite Elsie, Dr Alfred Kinsey, who paid to hear about his sexual experiences, and William Burroughs, who approached him in 1945 trying to sell a sawn-off shotgun.
"I've covered a hell of a lot of territory in my life," Huncke tells the crowd. He has no feelings of guilt or regret, he says. "One does what one does and that's all there is to it." He just wants to set the record straight on a few things: "I meant 'beat' as in tired, and they added a different sense to it - beatitude. I was beat, man." And as for one of Kerouac's many fictionalisations of him, as Elmo Hassel, the man with the hip sneer in On the Road, "I couldn't afford to sneer, I was dependent for my existence on the rest of the human race."
Still is. Somehow he scrapes by in the Chelsea Hotel, westside NY. The man who started with a dime in his pocket could always use some more. "Don't write anything too critical," he confides, "a guy's gotta make a living."
n Reading 8.30pm tonight, the Poster Studio, 148 Charing Cross Rd, London (0171-916 8030) pounds 6
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