Burroughs' final days spent in a cultural wilderness

The `Priest' They Called Him: the life and legacy of William S Burroughs. By Graham Caveney (Bloomsbury, pounds 20). To buy this book for poun ds 17 (inc p&p), tel 01634 297123 or see www.bloomsbury.com Graphics: Simon Jennings
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Amidst the blizzard of images and influences that circulated around the man in his last years, it was easy to forget that there existed a lower-case Burroughs at the centre of it all - a fragile old man in his eighties who lived his life irrespective of the legend it had generated.

Speculation was naturally rife. If rumours were to be believed, in his last few years Burroughs had become the Unabomber, fled to Central America, returned to being a junkie and was a demented loon who would shoot any visitors who strayed near his porch. The reality was more mundane. His lifestyle moved placidly between routine and relaxation. At 9am one of the employees from Burroughs Communications came to fix his breakfast, just as another would arrive in the early evening to cook his supper. The days were spent either painting or writing, interspersed with target- practice at a friend's shooting range. At 4pm the first vodka and Coke of the day was eagerly consumed, although the booze would be moderated until he went to bed around nine.

There were a ridiculous number of interview requests all of which were refused, although he could do little about the number of diehard fans (up to 12 a day) who bombarded him with unannounced visits. Some of them camped out in his yard; others were lucky enough to receive a brief audience. None of them came away with anything they didn't know before. It was not as though Burroughs had nothing new to say, but there was a problem in finding anything new to ask him.

His interest in sex had waned, and his affection was reserved for his six cats.

Even in his attitude to his pets, Burroughs brought together the paranoia of the atomic age with an almost mystical attachment for ancient Egypt's most potent symbol.

For a man who seemed to have set out to defy the laws of medicine, the elderly Burroughs apparently remained in remarkably good health. In the summer of 1991 he underwent a triple heart bypass, but within six months was walking around unaided. In the following year he made a suitably bizarre attempt to heal his psyche. He told Bockris that he could still sense the presence of the Ugly Spirit, that "When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It's as definite as someone attacking me in a bar. We usually come to a stand-off."

In March 1992 he decided to fight back. With the help of Ginsberg, Burroughs underwent a ceremony of cleansing - a ritual that had originated with the Sioux Indians and was performed for him by a Navajo shaman called Melvin Betsellie. Without a trace of irony, Ginsberg and Burroughs stripped naked and sat around a coal fire whilst the shaman chanted, prayed and exorcised the evil that he could sense within him.

What is of interest in this episode is not whether or not the shamanistic rituals of the Sioux have any therapeutic value, but that Burroughs should have wanted to believe that they possess some. For a writer whose touchstone has been one of radical scepticism, there still existed within him a desire or a leap of blind faith.

Two years after his Native American awakening, Burroughs appeared in a television commercial for Nike training shoes. The juxtaposition of spiritual cleansing with naked commerce suggests a contradiction that no other icon could balance. The cry of "sell-out" greets any artist who is seen to prostitute his or her talent merely to shift products.

The difference with Burroughs was that no one can be sure what he was selling - irony, indifference or integrity. Indeed, watching the Nike commercial one gets the impression that it is they who had to buy into Burroughs, and not the other way round. Far from being the appropriation of a marginalised icon, it was an acknowledgement that his image was always beyond their grasp. It was as though there was nothing that Burroughs could do that would be "Un-Burroughsian", no act or statement that would have tainted his credibility. He existed not at the limits of culture, but in its wilderness - a nomad who could never be accused of having deserted his home.

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