Wild Boys, The

by William S. Burroughs
(1971)
   The first book that William S. Burroughs published after having exhausted his original “word horde” (material composed in Morocco in the midto late-1950s) was The Wild Boys, which was the basis for naked luncH and the cut-ups trilogy-The soft macHine, The ticket tHat exploded, and nova express. Unlike those novels, there are few characters in The Wild Boys that overlap with Burroughs’s preceding works. The novel also incorporates Burroughs’s “cut-up” method much more selectively (and rarely) than he does in the cut-ups trilogy. Therefore, many critics see the book as a “return to narrative” on Burroughs’s part. Burroughs himself says that the book owes a debt to 19th-century narrative fiction, boy’s adventure magazines, and the nostalgic novels of English writer Denton Welch. Welch inspired Burroughs’s main character in the book, Audrey Carsons, who functions as Burroughs’s alter ego in this book. In The Cities of the Red Night, Audrey matures into Kim Carsons. The Wild Boys is thus an important new beginning for Burroughs in the late 1960s. Although the book’s title would indicate that it concerns itself with “the wild boys,” the book deals with them less than its “sequel,” Port of Saints, does, and there are also “wild boy” sections of Burroughs’s collection of short pieces from this time period, Exterminator! The wild boys are part of a fantasy world that is set around 1988 (20 years after the book was written) in which three-quarters of the world’s population has been wiped out by radiation or by a plague, leaving the world open to a takeover by packs of roaming boys. These boys have been incubated in test tubes and thus have always lived apart from women, making them a new line in the evolution of the species. “It’s all simply a personal projection,” Burroughs told Robert Palmer in 1972. “A prediction? I hope so. Would I consider events similar to The Wild Boys scenario desirable? Yes, desirable to me.”
   The Wild Boys has 18 “chapters,” five of which are titled “In the Penny Arcade.” These sections are often startlingly visual, akin to a still life. The first has a quite famous description of a “flesh garden,” some of Burroughs’s best fantasy writing. The other chapters are loosely connected if at all, and some, such as the opening section on the assassin Tío Mate, should probably have been included in Exterminator! as Burroughs himself later suggested. Still, the book does have a strange, accruing momentum, akin to the sense that the viewer makes out of a collage. Particularly at the end, the “wild boy” scenario takes over and develops. The book is subtitled A Book of the Dead because, as Burroughs says, all of the characters are dead. Audrey Carsons dies at the beginning of the book in a car accident, an accident that is repeated several times in the text in different settings.
   In The Wild Boys, Burroughs started to use material from his St. Louis (Pershing Avenue) childhood in his books, giving them a nostalgic tone. Audrey Carsons is a portrait of a deeply insecure 16-year-old Burroughs who is described by “a St. Louis aristocrat” (Politte Elvins, based on Kells Elvins’s father) as looking like “a sheep-killing dog.” Like Burroughs, Audrey never feels at ease around the rich men and their sons at the private school that he attends. As the narrator tells us, “He was painfully aware of being unwholesome.” Audrey and a boy named John Hamlin take a Dusenberg out for a joy ride, and they are both killed in a flaming car wreck. Behind the scenes of what turns out to be one of Burroughs’s “reality films,” Old Sarge has gripped the wheel and caused the fatal accident.
   Burroughs creates an alternative version of the “detour” wreck. John and Audrey tour a carnival, circa the 1890s. Like much of the book, it is intended to have an 1890s sepia tone to it. The wild boys roam the carnival, carrying long knives and wearing rainbow-colored jockstraps. Audrey enters a peep show. There is a good deal of dream material that is evident in the hallucinatory visions that Audrey views inside. This section makes clear the inspiration of the book in pulp magazines and boy’s adventure stories: “I was waiting there pale character in someone else’s writing breathing old pulp magazines.” A spectacular effect is achieved in a scene where Audrey tours a “flesh garden,” which is described to him in broken English by a native naturalist: “The scene is a sketch from an explorer’s notebook.”
   A. J. (based on Alan Ansen) reprises his role from Naked Lunch as the “foremost practitioner of luxury” who “thinks nothing of spending a million dollars to put a single dish on his table.” The story is set in a future dystopia where the very rich have it better than ever, but the poor scrap like animals. There is a pastichelike quality, imitating turn-ofthe-century British colonial narratives as the wild boys provide a “spot of bother” for the smart set. Several chapters obsessively evoke and reinvoke sex scenes between the wild boys or the native boys in other settings. The scenes here with the wild boys appear to take place just after the “control towers” were destroyed in The Ticket That Exploded, for the boys frolic in the ruins of the control room.
   Burroughs writes one chapter, “The Dead Child,” (in part) from the point of view of his son, Billy Burroughs III. The Mexico City setting, where Burroughs shot his wife Joan in 1951 when Billy was four years old, is chilling: “I don’t like to go home. My father is taking morphine and always tying up his arm and talking to this old junky who has a government scrip and mother drinks tequila all day.” This story intersects with the story of an Indian boy and his friend Xolotl, who escape from the control of the Mayan priests and live in a homoerotic, boy’s jungle-adventure fantasy world. When they die, they become tree spirits that urge boys to run from the “nets” cast by women—a variation of the book’s wild-boy theme of men without women.
   Beginning with the chapter “Just Call Me Joe” and continuing to the end of the book, the focus is more or less exclusively on the adventures of the wild boys. They begin their campaign against the status quo in Marrakech in 1969. Packs of “gasoline gangs” break into suburban living rooms and light on fire the couples who are sitting on their couches. A picture that was taken of one of these marauding youths lighting a cigarette off the match that he used to torch a gasoline-soaked suburbanite is taken up by an advertising campaign. The model is dubbed BOY, and he spawns countless merchandise and imitators. Vivien Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s seminal punk-rock boutique called BOY is said to have been inspired by this passage in The Wild Boys.
   Colonel Arachnid Ben Driss is sent to kill the gasoline gangs, and most of the boys are eliminated but not all. From around the world, including America, young men leave home to join the wild boys. During the U.S. Bicentennial, a Colonel Greenfield rallies the troops and takes an expeditionary force to Marrakech to quash the latest wild-boy uprising. Hundreds of the wild boys surrender to the colonel, but it turns out to be an ambush, and Greenfield’s army is destroyed. Only 1500 of Greenfield’s 20,000 soldiers make it back alive to Casablanca.
   The second generation of wild boys is actually bred by “fugitive technicians” who raise the boys in test tubes. They are the first boys never to grow up around women; their behavior is novel, and their culture is unique: “A whole generation arose that had never seen a woman’s face nor heard a woman’s voice.” In “The Wild Boys,” a Colonel Bradly describes their habits in anthropological terms, including a mystical ceremony in which the boys exhibit the power to procreate.
   By 1988 the world has been taken over by fascists under the pretext of a war against drugs. The wild boys serve as the liberators of the Americas, operating out of bases in Mexico and Central and South America. Burroughs expands this storyline in Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads. The boys’ platform of liberation is based on eliminating “all dogmatic verbal systems. The family unit and its cancerous expansion into tribes, countries, nations we will eradicate at its vegetable route.” This program is similar to that of the Articulated in Cities of the Red Night as well as that of the Johnson Family in The Place of Dead Roads. Audrey Carsons reappears at the end of the book. Colonel Bradly sends him on a mission to contact the roller-skating wild boys in the suburbs of Casablanca. His contact is a shoeshine boy called The Dib. They hook up with Jimmy the Shrew, a bicycle boy who arms them with “film grenades.” They toss one when a cop stops them, and the novel goes to black. The book ends with Audrey just on the verge of discovering the wildboy gang. Port of Saints picks up from this point and centers on the history of the wild boys—much more so than the book that takes its title from the name of the test–tube-incubated boy gang.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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