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Monday, April 17, 2017

Speed * Kentucky Ham (William Burroughs)

By: William S. Burroughs Jr. (with an introduction by Ann Chamber, afterword by William S. Burroughs Sr.)

Publisher:  The Overlook Press (October 1, 1993)

Softcover 363 pages

Finished 4/16/2017

Amazon Listing 

          “So, we stood around in the parking lot being sized up, nightsticks tapping palms as if the two of us were going to take on six cops, Joe Frazier’s brother, and a pharmacist, even though I would have liked a crack at the latter. I was paying him, wasn’t I? And he was pinkly proud like he’d just lost his virginity.”
William S. Burroughs Sr.
          Written by the son of the illustrious author of Naked Lunch, this is a foray into his personal experiences in speed addiction and various other criminal activities. His father, Burroughs Sr., famously shot his wife in the head in Mexico, during the drunken game of William Tell. The author, four at the time, was in the room. This is a collection of two book, written in the 60s and 70s, repackaged here after his death in 1981 from liver failure, caused by (surprise surprise) drug and alcohol abuse.  They are not bad reads, but you have to ask yourself if you want to commit to 363 straight pages of drug talk.
In Speed we see him trying to follow in his father’s footsteps style wise. It is reminiscent of Burroughs’s own drug autobiography Junkie, however he might have been too influenced by the book as he hasn’t quite found his own voice here. He attempts to create a speed-freak atmosphere about the entire novel. It is very fast, with the world a whirlwind of drugs, being busted, shooting up, half remembered people, shooting galleries, not eating, not sleeping for weeks, filth everywhere and brutal cops.
Original cover of Speed 1973
With this last one I relate to the police having spent too much of my personal life around chronic alcoholics and junkies, I can certainly understand any cop’s no-bullshit attitude towards them.  The author doesn’t take my view. Writing about a narcotic detective, he states about the cop’s attitude “does this sound like the kind of man who is dedicating his life to alleviating the self-destruction of others?” This is wracked with irony, considering how he died and I couldn’t help but reflect, “Junkie alleviate thyself.”
          The story revolves around his trip from Florida to New York to visit some friends and explore the drug scene which was thriving in the late 1960s at the time. Unlike his father, who tended to shy away from personal autobiographical accounts, Burroughs Jr. seems to be one of those writers who can only talk about themselves. Nothing wrong with that as long as it’s done well. He doesn’t talk himself up, occasionally castigates himself, but shrugs it off with a “this is how is was” attitude.
          Alan Ginsberg shows up in here, simply referred to as Alan, to bail him out of prison several times (3 arrests, no convictions). He didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the author. Appearing in the periphery, chastising the author on his decisions (not unwisely), and offering much unheeded advice on life, politics, and philosophy- which the writer promptly forgot.  One odd snippet dealing with Ginsburg is apparently he offered to show the author a morgue picture of his mother with the bullet hole prominently showing. The author declined.
         With Kentucky Ham he tries to take on a more hipster tone (60s hipster that is) constantly throwing in old slang terms that severely dates the work. The only times you see similar things nowadays is when someone is mocking that decade and its youthful generation. “Look out here you young cats.” It hampered my taking the book seriously.
          We see more of his immortal father in this tome. He goes to Tangier to live with him at the age of thirteen and delves deep into the drug lifestyle, beginning with hashish. In the afterword by Burroughs senior, he says as if he is confused by them not becoming closer. From the text that’s because the senior was stoned all of the time. You can be a parent or a junkie, but not both.
William S. Burroughs Sr.
          It then flashes forward to Burroughs Jr. getting arrested for forging prescriptions and his internment in a federal narcotics hospital, him juking the system, and then going to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. Bringing him back to the points that you can’t make a junkie give up the habit if they don’t want to.
          What I liked about these books is that the author doesn’t glamourize the 60s drug scene. The bad living conditions, the thieves, diseases, and the degradation is put on full display. It also apparent that he loved the drug lifestyle. He may lament a few decisions, but it’s clear that he had the time of his life. Many people fretted over him, but he blew them all off.
Willaim S. Buroughs Jr.
           On the other hand he often makes half-assed rote counter-culture blurbs about American society and the police, which is mostly cribbed from his father’s opinions. Boiled down it is mostly him complaining that he couldn’t get high all of the time, get all the drugs he wanted for free, and was arrested when he did something illegal. No matter where and when he might’ve grown up, it seems that he would have been biologically destined to be a substance abuser and bottom out on life.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

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