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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk" (William Burroughs)

By William S. Burroughs (with the 1952 & 1977 introductions by Alan Ginseburg) (and the 1953 & 1964 forwards by Carl Solomon)

Publisher: Grove Press (November 13, 2012) (originally published by Ace Books in 1953)

Softcover 256 pages

Finished 6/10/2017

Amazon Listing

          “The questions of course could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked. Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start using any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.”
          Thus begins William S. Burroughs’s first published book, dedicated to his one true love, drugs. This work is unlike any of his other writings (except for a few selected essays) in that it maintains a coherent focus and timeline. It does not devolve into hallucinogenic insanity as does his later texts. Though we do see a few precursor snippets of Naked Lunch within the story. The pusher Bill Gains and the narco cop Hauser appear, both the same brutal caricatures. The Mexican drug queen Lupita is a prominent figure in the later parts of Junky. Never seen, she is constantly lurking in the background, controlling his supply of morphine. The police detective trailing someone in a white trenchcoat, making him easy for others to spot, occurs here as well. These are all small, but memorable parts, of what will be his seminal work.
Author William S. Burroughs
            Junky came out at a time when a series of lurid tell-all books appeared on the subject- H is for Heroin and The Man with the Golden Arm. This book differed significantly because the tone is so flat, almost amoral. The heavy handed morality play or exploitation luridness is nonexistent. “Here are the facts,” Burroughs writes and he gives them, without social comment and without emotion.
          In a sense this is not an autobiographical work, as you do not get a sense of eh man behind the pen. He is in fact a dead slate. It comes as a surprise later in the work when it is revealed that he has a wife. And you would never guess that, except in one throwaway line, that there were two children dragged along into the gays bars and shooting galleries of New York, New Orleans, and Mexico City. A line near the end of the text, “My wife and I were separated,” is the only cryptic indicator of the infamous William Tell incident, where he drunkenly shot her in the head. This separation is permanent. All that is presented is one man and his junk.
          This is not uncommon for old school autobiographies, the fifties were just beginning to tilt that narrative. Despite his rejection of it, the Victorian values of upper crust educated WASP society had left an indelible mark on Burrough’s style. Simply put, you do not air your family laundry in public. Being gay and a drug user was one thing, that was him, but the rest of the family was out of bounds. 
Original cover, title, and nom de plume from the 1953 Ace publication.
          Burroughs loves his drug habit. “Junk does not cause addiction,” he writes, “exposure does.” A very thin hair there. The only emotion he displays here is anger towards those who prevent him from scoring and the psychiatrists who regularly ask him why he feels he needs it. “I need it to get up in the morning,” is part of the standard reply. As I have said previously in my review of his other book and that of his son's, had no one prevented him from getting drugs, Burroughs would almost have no opinions on anything at all.
          His views on homosexuals are interesting. He seems to have an absolute dislike for them, despite being gay himself. “A room full of fags gives me the horrors. They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous.” He reports on this several times, only seeming to go to such places when drunk and horny, but otherwise abjuring them in preference to dark junk filled holes and bars on the outskirts of poor areas. His disregard for women is also well know. Even his common law wife. “We give them too much power. It’s some left over Southern chivalry that we need to jettison.”
          Included is the glossary that was part of the original edition. Nowadays it’s rather laughable because all of the hip slang terms of the time are now so ingrained in our common vocabulary that an explanation isn’t needed. Idioms like “cold turkey”, “kick a habit”, “coke”, “weed” are all spelled out for the 1950’s “square”.  
Cover the 1977 edition
        Two additional chapters written for the original version have been included. One detailing a stop Burroughs makes between New Orleans and Mexico City, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. He goes on for some length detailing its decay over the years and its cultural stagnation. The tone is totally different from the rest of the text. In the second he details the idiot ideas of Wilhelm Reich and how the orgone accumulator could cure cancer, as well as number of other illnesses. These assertions of Reich eventually lead to the death of several children and the burning of all of his works, ordered by the FDA. He describes building an orgone accumulator and curing a junk habit with its use. It also was removed due to its tonal shift from the rest of the text and for repetition, as parts of what he states in the chapter has distributed elsewhere in the book.
          In becoming the “definitive” edition the book has ironically left something out. In the original edition there were copious editors notes placed in the text, which clarified or disagreed with the facts that Burroughs put forth. These were omitted as they were not the author’s words. I still would have liked an appendix which stated what these editorial blurbs stated.

                For more readings, try my collection of books. 

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