Burroughs: The high priest of The Beat

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After a nondescript spell at Harvard university, a tour of Europe during which, bizarrely, he underwent a marriage of convenience to an Austrian Jew fleeing the Nazis, Burroughs avoided wartime service and found work in Chicago.

The huge number of men away fighting in the war meant that work was easy to come by, and Burroughs soon landed a job as a bugman for A J Cohen, Exterminators. His employment gained him access to Chicago's seedier sides, the roach-infested apartments and run-down rooming houses that he had first encountered in the writing of Jack Black (the memoir of a petty criminal). It was in Chicago that Burroughs's fascination with larger-than-life characters first crystallised. His role as exterminator is the first real incarnation of Burroughs the assassin, a man thriving on infestation even as he eradicates it. Insects provide a potent metaphor for his work - symbols of invasion, Kafkaesque pastiches that suggest the proximity of humanity to disease. Burroughs would later mobilise this myth directly in his book Exterminator!

Burroughs was joined in Chicago by two friends from St Louis, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer. Kammerer was a homosexual while Carr was a young eccentric student with whom Kammerer was obsessed. Wild times were the norm, and eventually Burroughs was ejected from his lodgings when his landlady discovered that the three of them had been tearing up the en suite Bible and pissing out of the window.

Burroughs, who had stuck at his job for eight months and was becoming bored, and who had now also been made homeless, had no further reason to stay in Chicago. He decided to move on with the dysfunctional couple and explore the allure of New York.

Whilst Carr immersed himself in the academic excitement of Columbia, Burroughs and Kammerer took up residence in Greenwich Village - the former at 69 Bedford Village Street, the latter around the corner on Morton Street. Manhattan had already established itself as the home of Modernism in the 1920s, and this legacy continued through the Forties with the arrival of the artistic avant-garde - abstract expressionists, jazz musicians, photographers and aspiring writers. Burroughs and Kammerer had found their spiritual home, a bohemia in which artistry and criminality were seamlessly interwoven. They became regular patrons of the San Remo Bar and the Minetta Tavern - places that had already begun to lend the outlaw an aesthetic dimension, and would later become the hallowed haunts of beatnik folklore.

Carr lived a hundred blocks away and remained in regular contact. On one of these visits to Burroughs, he brought with him a recent acquaintance from Columbia - a nervous, bespectacled, 17-year-old Jewish boy from New Jersey. His name was Allen Ginsberg. The poet recalls being immediately impressed by Burroughs, a figure who seemed to him full of wisdom and wide reading. "I had always respected him as elder and wiser than myself, and in our first years' acquaintance was amazed that he treated me with respect at all," he was to write. Carr and Ginsberg provided a gateway through which Burroughs gained access to the Columbia crowd, a circle that most significantly included the writer Jack Kerouac and his girlfriend Edie Parker.

As the friendship between Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac solidified, that between Carr and Kammerer was rapidly deteriorating. Carr's attachment to his girlfriend in Chicago - a half French student named Celine Young - served only to inflame Kammerer's infatuation further. On a booze-fuelled night in August 1944, Kammerer threatened to kill both Carr and himself if they could not be together. A fight ensued, in the course of which Carr pulled a knife and stabbed the older man twice through the heart. He dumped the body in the Hudson before going to Burroughs's apartment to tell him what had happened. Burroughs advised him to get a lawyer and to claim self-defence. It took two days of soul-searching and Dutch courage in the bars around the Village before Carr found the nerve to turn himself in. He eventually plea-bargained down to manslaughter and served two years at the Elmira Reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were both charged for their failure to report a homicide, then released.

Far from disabusing them of their libertarian lifestyles, the Kammerer killing seemed to confirm the group's belief that their world-view was well grounded. It inspired Burroughs to start writing again, this time a collaboration with Kerouac entitled "And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks". The project never really got into its stride. Burroughs remained taciturn about Kerouac's contributions, while he felt himself too close to the incident to afford it the gravity it deserved. It was rejected by publishers.

As a counterpoise to the student-led Columbia group, Burroughs cultivated contacts among the hustlers of Times Square. He began to act as a go-between for stolen goods, illegal handguns and morphine syrettes. One of the key players in this twilight world of petty thievery was Herbert Huncke, a small-time crook and addict who had been living off his unscrupulous wits since the age of 12. Huncke the Junkie was the personification of a type that Norman Mailer would later term "The White Negro" - the hipster whose only values stem from the rebellious imperatives of the self. Kerouac described him as "weary, indifferent, yet somehow astonished, too, aware of everything".

Burroughs moved fluently between the literary uptown of Columbia and the downtown villainy of 42nd Street, until he eventually became the magnet that drew the two worlds together. Burroughs introduced Ginsberg to Huncke, who in return introduced Ginsberg to Benzedrine. The traffic was flowing both ways - Huncke gave the writers an entree into the streets, they provided him with a smokescreen behind which he could hide what he was really doing on the streets. Given the circumstances, it was almost inevitable that Burroughs would experiment with drugs, and Huncke eagerly taught him how to persuade doctors to write morphine prescriptions. By 1944 Burroughs had acquired his first smack habit.

The 'Priest' They Called Him: the life and legacy of William S Burroughs. By Graham Caveney (Bloomsbury, pounds 20). To buy this book for pounds 17 (incl p&p) phone 01634 297 123 or see http://www.bloomsbury.com

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