William S. Burroughs’ Junky: A Spiritual Quest via Heroin Addiction

Junkie by William BurroughsJunky, a semi-autobiographical novel by William S. Burroughs, is a seductive story set at the inception of the “hip” subculture in America. The story follows a man at odds with American mainstream culture into a quest for spiritual meaning via heroin. Burroughs did, in fact, start using heroin in 1944 and within a year, he was an addict. Though the book does not shy away from the sordid aspects of an addict’s life, this is not a literary Reefer Madness.

William S. Burroughs was born into an affluent family in 1914 and went to Harvard. But he was not your normal spoiled brat rich kid. In his youth, he claims he was a chronic malingerer. He didn’t like competitive sports. He sometimes suffered from hallucinations, and was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. He was a voracious reader who liked Oscar Wilde, Anatole France, Baudelaire, and Gide. Referring to his overall attitude toward life in his teen years, he says:

At this time, I was greatly impressed by an autobiography of a burglar, called You Can’t Win. The author claimed to have spent a good part of his life in jail. It sounded good to me compared with the dullness of a Midwest suburb where all contact with life was shut out.

And as for Harvard:

Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English set-up taken over by graduates of fake English public schools. I was lonely. I knew no one, and strangers were regarded with distaste by the closed corporation of the desirables.

When the entire civilized world starts blowing itself to bits in WWII, he starts dabbling in heroin.

Even today, this book is controversial, because much of it is pro-drug (or at least, not anti-drug). Burroughs’ narrator describes in detail the practical day-to-day methods of survival of a junky—how to counterfeit “scripts” to obtain morphine from drugstores, the specific techniques involved in stealing wallets from sleeping drunks in subways, how to make a living stealing overcoats, and how to select “right” clients when dealing drugs yourself.

There’s a hilarious passage where he compares dealing pot to mink farming. He describes the physical pain of withdrawal from junk, and the conversation in addiction treatment centers, which seems mostly about trading tips on drugs to use when the junk runs out. He describes how junk slowly becomes the center of an addict’s existence, how life “… telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to the next…” Yet, he also says things like:

I have never regretted my experience with drugs. I think I am in better health now as a result of using junk at intervals than I would be if I had never been an addict. When you stop growing you start dying. An addict never stops growing … I experienced the agonizing deprivation of junk sickness, and the pleasure of relief when junk-thirsty cells drank from the needle. Perhaps all pleasure is relief. I have learned the cellular stoicism that junk teaches the user. I have seen a cell full of sick junkies silent and immobile in separate misery. They knew the pointlessness of complaining or moving. They knew that basically no one can help anyone else.

The only time Burroughs’ hero feels alive is when he’s high on junk.

Burroughs wrote much of this book in Mexico and sent it in pieces to his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was instrumental in getting it published as a novel in 1953. The cover shown above is for the original 1953 Ace paperback. (The spelling of the title on the later published editions has been changed to Junky.) The novel was initially published under the pseudonym William Lee (his mother’s maiden name), and was marketed as a pulp potboiler, like Jim Thompson’s noir classics (see my review of The Grifters).

The “hip” society Burroughs describes in his first published novel is not just a world of junkies, but a mixture of many countercultures that intermingled in the forties and fifties. The narrator’s friends include burglars and thieves. Some are con artists. One female friend is a prostitute. They come together to score drugs, get high, and listen to “gone” jazz, and they’re fascinating. Burroughs, though married, is also a homosexual at a time when most gays were closeted. He acknowledges that junk kills his sex drive.

In addition to heroin addicts, he discusses the speed addicts who use benzedrine, the “tea heads” who smoke pot, cocaine users, and barbiturate addicts who pop “goof balls” (Nembutal). Burroughs’ narrator also uses all of these drugs himself on occasion (Nembutal takes “the edge” off of withdrawal when no junk is available), but it’s always junk he goes back to.

Though writing at a time when marijuana was classified as an addictive drug similar to the opiates, he is effusive in his defense of marijuana as a safe, non-addictive, recreational drug with aphrodisiacal properties, using (in 1953!) all of the arguments in favor of legalizing weed that are finally winning referendums today.

Many of the novel’s discussions of junk verge on the mystical. The narrator believes junk becomes something that lives inside of you. He believes he can “sense” another junkie, even if the person is a stranger and has not used junk for ten years. He believes he can “feel” when junk is in a neighborhood, or even in the vicinity.

But again, at heart, this book is about a spiritual quest, though Burroughs never mentions God, and never bores you with mystical visions. The quest is expressed in the details of everyday life. It most reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, a novel about a lifelong struggle to find meaning through a life of hard times. But unlike Siddhartha, Burroughs’ hero does not find enlightenment, so Junky comes off as Siddhartha for realists. At the end, our hero’s heard about a drug in Columbia known as “yage” (a real psychotropic drug, by the way, extracted from a desert plant) that’s supposed to possess spiritual and even telepathic properties.

I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.

Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh …”

In Burroughs’ later works, his search for a state of “telepathy” and his desire to smash the old order make his writing less accessible to many readers. Ironically, Junky, Burroughs’ first novel, provides a reader most readily with that “… contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling …” that Burroughs called telepathy and sought throughout his life. It reads like Burroughs talking to you pure and clear.

Junky is a fast easy read, and very funny. It’s a badass book.

Junky        .

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And I’m publishing a series of short novels here at Write-aholic called Smut4Nerds.  My professional writing career began in 1972 writing smut for Greenleaf Classics, and I’ve recently decided to finish my writing career the same way I started it, with pulp smut. But this time, it’s on my own terms.

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