Place of Dead Roads, The

by William S. Burroughs
   Perhaps the masterpiece of William S. Burroughs’s “the Red Night trilogy,” which includes cities of tHe red niGHt (1981) and The western lands (1987), The Place of Dead Roads is Burroughs’s first and only Western. Burroughs moved into a house in Lawrence, Kansas, to finish writing the book. He would live in Lawrence until his death on August 2, 1997. Lawrence was the stronghold of the Jayhawkers, Union guerrillas during the Civil War who were the archenemies of Quantrill’s Confederate marauders. The outlaw gang that Burroughs imagines in The Place of Dead Roads, called the Johnson Family, loosely resembles the legendary James–Younger gang that sprang from Quantrill’s raiders. In Burroughs’s novel the detractors of the Johnson Family compare the outlaw gang to the Confederate guerrillas by starting a defamation campaign with the slogan “QUANTRILL RIDES AGAIN.” One of the Johnsons, Denton Brady, “rode with the James boys and he was a child prodigy under Quantrill.” In this novel Burroughs creates a political model for the counterculture of the future that is based on the legends of supposedly egalitarian outlaws such as Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger.
   The Place of Dead Roads can be read as a rewriting of Burroughs’s favorite childhood book You Can’t Win (1926) by Jack Black. Burroughs writes: Stultified and confined by middle class St. Louis mores, I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat houses and opium dens, of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles. I learned about the Johnson Family of good bums and thieves, with a code of conduct that made more sense to me than the arbitrary, hypocritical rules that were taken for granted as being “right” by my peers. Ted Morgan claims that Black’s book “would have an enormous impact on the unfolding of [Burroughs’s] life and work.” “In You Can’t Win,” writes Morgan, “there is a set of values . . . that Burroughs would make his own.” Yet in the harsh world of Black’s picaresque autobiography, even the outlaws who stand by an honorable code of conduct are destined to fail as victims of a hypocritical society. Burroughs’s childhood dream of actually finding a successful and righteous community of outlaws, similar to the one depicted in Black’s book, haunted Burroughs’s imagination throughout his literary career. Barry Miles argues, “In The Place of Dead Roads, Jack Black’s Johnson Family stand a good chance of winning. . . . Here [Burroughs] is doing his best to make it happen by writing it into existence.” Timothy S. Murphy de-scribes The Place of Dead Roads as concerned “with the possibilities for a subversive social order along the ‘lawless’ American frontier.” Though often a loner and depicted as apolitical, Burroughs in The Place of Dead Roads makes his most rigorous attempt to imagine a successful outlaw community. Burroughs places his alter-ego, Kim Carsons, at the center of the Johnson Family in The Place of Dead Roads. Carsons is a gay shootist whose struggle is against all forces that control the individual. Carsons also writes Westerns under the name William Seward Hall.
   In the middle of the novel, Burroughs states the political agenda of the Johnsons, who have been forced out of their position of tolerance by alien forces seeking to destroy humanity: We will take every opportunity to weaken the power of the church. We will lobby in Congress for heavy taxes on all churches. We will provide more interesting avenues for the young. We will destroy the church with ridicule. We will secularize the church out of existence. . . . Far from seeing an atheistic world as the communists do, we will force Christianity to compete for the human spirit.
   We will fight any extension of federal authority and support States’ Rights. We will resist any attempt to penalize or legislate against so-called victimless crimes . . . gambling, sexual behavior, drinking, drugs. We will give all our attention to experiments designed to produce asexual offspring, to cloning, use of artificial wombs, and transfer operations.
   We will endeavor to halt the Industrial Revolution before it is too late, to regulate populations at a reasonable point, to eventually replace quantitative money with qualitative money, to decentralize, to conserve resources.
   With this clear sense of purpose, the Johnson Family becomes a political entity that is capable of defeating the alien presence. The agenda of the Johnsons is something in which Burroughs truly believed and hoped that it would be implemented in society. For Burroughs this agenda was a practical means of creating a better world. Burroughs even imagines sources for the Johnsons to support themselves in their subversive struggle: “The Family has set up a number of posts in America and northern Mexico. They are already very rich, mostly from real estate. They own newspapers, a chemical company, a gun factory, and a factory for making photographic equipment, which will become one of the first film studios.”
   Rather than having static roles within the Johnson Family, the members periodically exchange positions of greater and lesser power in the community: “The Johnson Family is a cooperative structure. There isn’t any boss man. People know what they are supposed to do and they do it. We’re all actors and we change roles.” Kim Carsons goes underground to help the Johnson cause and has himself cloned. When Kim reflects on the society that he is helping establish, he thinks that “his dream of a take-over by the Johnson Family, by those who actually do the work, the reactive thinkers and artists and technicians, was not just science fiction. It could happen.”
   Yet Burroughs ends his novel with the assassination of his hero. In The Western Lands, the sequel to The Place of Dead Roads, we find out that Joe the Dead has killed Kim Carsons. Perhaps Burroughs’s fatalistic and pessimistic attitude prevented him from allowing Kim Carsons to live. Despite the sense that the Johnson Family, with the death of Kim, will not be capable of organizing itself well enough to be successful, Burroughs does suggest another avenue for them out of defeat. The events of the novel are portrayed as being scenes in a film that is controlled by a mysterious director. At the beginning of the novel there is the suggestion that the film can be broken, liberating the characters involved, and altering their fates.
■ Burroughs, William S. Foreword. You Can’t Win, by Jack Black. 1926. Reprint, New York: Amok Press, 1988, v–viii.
■ Miles, Barry. William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait. New York: Hyperion, 1992.
■ Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.
■ Murphy, Timothy S. Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
   Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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