4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Keith Otis Edwards
- Published on Amazon.com
This is an amazing, beautiful and troubling book, superbly edited and annotated by Oliver Harris. More than mere letters, it's a series of snapshots which record the transformation of a man.
In the early (1947) letters, we meet William Burroughs, living with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer-Adams, as a gentleman farmer in South Texas, and he sounds like a loyal Republican -- denouncing the government, taxes, unions, labor and psychiatry. He signs one letter, "The Honest Hog Caller." By 1948 he has moved to New Orleans -- possibly in search of male lovers, possibly due to his attraction for the underworld and petty criminals, or possibly due to being convicted of drunk driving in Texas.
During the New Orleans period, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady stop by as part of their On the Road trip, and Burroughs spends pages voicing his stern disapproval. "Most inveterate moochers are convinced that while they have no obligations toward anyone else . . . others have a moral obligation to supply their needs." He yet holds the values of the right: "I tell you we are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism."
Then something happens. He is busted with his low-life friends, and it looks like a stretch in the inferno of the dreaded Angola prison farm, so he and Joan take it on the lam to Mexico, where he does just fine. He boasts, "I couldn't get back on the junk if I wanted to." He lectures Allen Ginsberg about the benefits of going heterosexual.
Then something horrible happens. He shoots Joan in the head while playing William Tell. Nothing about this is mentioned in his letters, but afterward there is a gradual and inexorable slide downward. He has an unrequited love affair with a young man. His lawyer skips town, and Burroughs leaves Mexico on a quixotic trek to South America in search of a drug called Yage, which, once he finds it, poisons him.
What he really wants is young and handsome Allen Ginsberg, but Ginsberg rejects him, so he takes off to Tangiers and develops a heavy dope habit -- shooting-up every four hours. This part of the book is the most moving, because all he can do is recite his litany of rejection. Ginsberg doesn't want him and doesn't answer his letters. The expatriate colony of Tangiers (including Paul Bowles) understandably rejects such a pathetic wreck of a man, too, and the contrast between this lost, begging, lonely creature and the haughty fellow at the beginning could not be greater. I know of no work of fiction that portrays the destruction of a human being more vividly than these letters.
Then, another change. Ginsberg finally begins writing again, and Burroughs pours his heart out to him and then (happily assisted by weed) begins pouring out his imagination in the form of letters that became the basis for Naked Lunch. Once word about this extraordinary writing got around, Burroughs rejoined the human race. He became accepted by others and moved to Paris with artist Brion Gysin. There, a third William Burroughs emerges -- Burroughs the mystic.
He has visions. He discovers the "cut-up" method of writing which produces new and magical meanings from randomly juxtaposed words. He proselytizes Dr. Dent's apomorphine cure for addiction (when, all along, we see what the real cause of Burroughs's addiction was). He postulates a cure for cancer. I don't think that Burroughs was as attracted to Scientology for its restorative auditing practices or organization (which he later called "A fink outfit"), so much as he was fascinated by the religion's hagiography of the evil Emperor Xenu who, 75 million years ago, trapped millions of souls in volcanos and exterminated them with hydrogen bombs. (On The Best Of William Burroughs CD collection, you can hear him read about the "soul-killer H-bombs.")
What a metamorphosis! Within ten years, he transforms from a stern libertarian to a pathetic and hopeless bum, then to the modern-day Madame Blavatsky! No buncombe is too nonsensical for him, and there are pages and pages of letters rhapsodizing over the greatness of Jacques Stern, who seems to have been the world's champion of [horsefeathers]. It was also at this time that he conceived his theory that mankind's purpose was to go live in outer space. He went from being a Yankee skeptic to someone who was hungry to believe.
The book ends with some 1959 letters extolling Scientology, so we don't get to see the next incarnations of William Burroughs -- the New York Punk celebrity and the Old Sage of Lawrence, Kansas, in which persona wrote his best work. (Everyone should write James Grauerholz a letter of thanks making this last Burroughs possible.) But I have never read a more dramatic book, let alone a collection of letters, that demonstrates death and regeneration. Because he was so lonely and desperate, Burroughs put everything he had into these letters, and it's some of the best writing of the second half of the twentieth century.