Junky

by William S. Burroughs
(1953)
   This first novel by William S. Burroughs is his most accessible work. While many readers have difficulty with Burroughs’s later novels, this one resembles the straightforward, hard-boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett. The book was started in Mexico City and was originally called “Junk” under the pseudonym “William Dennison,” the name of the character based on Burroughs in jack kerouac’s The town and tHe city. The novel was published under “William Lee” (Lee being Burroughs’s mother’s maiden name) as Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict bound back-to-back with Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant. The 35-cent pulp books sold more than 100,000 copies. An unexpurgated and expanded edition was printed in 1977 as Junky. The book is often read as Burroughs’s anthropological examination of the drug underworld.
   One of the important historical references that Burroughs makes in this novel is to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which prohibited the supply of opiates in the United States. Harris informs us that Burroughs’s uncle Horace Burroughs had become addicted to morphine through medical treatment and committed suicide shortly after the Harrison Act came into effect, presumably because he was unable to handle the criminalization of morphine use. Though Burroughs does not single out the Harrison Act in Junky as the determining factor that pushed addicts into a life of crime, he does argue that the police state created by drug laws is at least as dangerous as the addictive drugs themselves.
   In the later part of Junky, Lee, Burroughs’s persona, jumps bail after being convinced that he has no chance for escaping a drug conviction. He writes, “I saw my chance of escaping conviction dwindle daily as the anti-junk feeling mounted to a paranoid obsession, like anti-Semitism under the Nazis. So I decided to jump bail and live permanently outside the United States.” Burroughs had seen the anti-Semitism brought by Nazism in Austria and Yugoslavia in the mid-1930s after he graduated from Harvard. His first wife, Ilse Klapper, was a German Jew whom he had married to bring her to the United States to save her life from the Nazis. For the rest of his life Burroughs would be wary of political groups who used paranoia under the guise of social cleansing truly to exert more control over the populace. Though our modern sensibilities make it difficult for many readers to view drug addicts as victims, Burroughs tries hard in his novel to place some of the responsibility for the problems that are associated with drug use on the United States government. Many of the junkies whom Burroughs depicts in Junky and his other novels have a code of ethics that is portrayed as superior to the code found in the straight world.
   Although the book is an early Beat classic, Burroughs’s writing in Junky was not as much inspired by his Beat friends as by the memoir You Can’t Win (1926) by Jack Black. There are no references to allen ginsberg and Kerouac in the novel, though there is a striking portrait of herbert huncke as the character Herman, and none of the characters in Junky is an aspiring artist or bohemian. They are the street denizens about whom Burroughs had fantasized after reading You Can’t Win. Burroughs had hoped to find a life for himself among the criminal underground that had fascinated him as a youth. In his foreword to the 1988 edition of Black’s book, Burroughs writes, “I first read You Can’t Win in 1926, in an edition bound in red cardboard. Stultified and confined by middle-class St. Louis mores, I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy roominghouses, 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.”
   Burroughs does not find the honorable Johnsons for whom he was looking in Junky (he would later create them fictionally in The place of dead roads, the second novel of his the Red Night trilogy), but what he does describe is one of the most candid depictions of the narcotics underworld ever told. What is particularly striking about Burroughs’s work is that he does not recant his decision to become part of the drug underworld. Ginsberg writes, “[T]he author has done what he has set out to do: to give a fairly representative and accurate picture of the junk world and all it involves; a true picture, given for the first time in America, of that vast underground life which has recently been so publicized. It is a notable accomplishment; there is no sentimentality here, no attempt at self-exculpation but the most candid, no romanticization of the circumstances, the dreariness, the horror, the mechanical beatness and evil of the junk life as lived.”
   Ginsberg, the strongest supporter of Burroughs’s work, put the manuscript in front of his friend from the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, Carl Solomon, who had inspired the poem “howl” and was the nephew of the owner of Ace Books. Although the publishers saw the book’s marketability, they had some reservations about the content of the novel and forced Burroughs to write an introduction which emphasized his patrician upbringing. This gave “Lee” a legitimacy that he would otherwise lack, the publishers felt. The early readers of Junky, however, knew that they were reading a book by a man who knew what he was talking about. Burroughs’s miniessay on marijuana, for example, is the kind of straight talk that readers loved about the book. Nowhere else was there information on drugs that was accurate and unclouded by government or church moralistic propaganda. Burroughs makes the reader wonder at the source of all the misinformation. Today the novel rings as true as it did then. Telling the truth about drugs in 1953 was a revolutionary act; it still seems so today, which is perhaps why the book has not lost its relevance and ability to shock with its straightforwardness and common sense based on experience. For example, director Gus Van Sant consulted Junky to attain the realism of the drug world in his movie Drugstore Cowboy, which is based on James Fogle’s novel about pharmaceutical drug addiction. Burroughs, appropriately, has a cameo in the film as an old junky priest, “Father Bob.” The language of Burroughs’s novel is that of drugs and crime. To “beat” someone is to steal from them, not related to Kerouac’s definition of beat as related to “beatitude.” Burroughs’s catalog of junky jargon is reminiscent of Jack London’s fascination with the argot of the hobo. In fact, the cultures are similar. They both have a linguistic base. The junky culture is fascinating because of its language, and the language is its culture. Clearly, this was material for writers, the same way that whaling and confidence men and their system of symbols and signs and secret codes were material for Melville 100 years before. In a sense, Junky is what Kerouac wanted to do with his writing: make his life into a story using subterranean language.
   In addition to Burroughs’s use of language, the sexuality of Burroughs’s character Lee is also of extreme importance. Sexuality seems to have been sublimated by the pursuit of narcotics. Attitudes toward homosexuality in the novel are ambivalent. Burroughs shows simultaneous attraction and repulsion. He is generally very drunk before he will submit to his desire to sleep with a man. A startling omission is the lack of descriptive detail regarding Burroughs’s wife Joan, whom Burroughs had accidentally killed when he tried to shoot a glass off the top of her head in 1951. When Lee’s wife appears, it is suddenly, and she exits quickly; in fact, there are almost no women in the book, and there is only a minor reference to his children. Burroughs leaves out his whole married life. Why? This curious omission points to the fact that this “straightforward” book is also a deceptive one. True of many of the Beats’ writing styles, Burroughs’s style seems to leave nothing out, but in fact there is great deal of omission, distortion, and invention.
   Junky also foreshadows the use of the grotesque and the supernatural that will become major features of Burroughs’s later writings. Though they are easy to miss in this work of literary realism, odd instances of prose that prefigure the style found in naked luncH occasionally surface. Looking for junk on the streets of Mexico City, Lee reminisces about the junk neighborhoods that he has known and a particular type of character that he always finds there. He writes, “So this man walks around in the places where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed. His eyes are black with an insect’s unseeing calm. He looks as if he nourished himself on honey and Levantine syrups that he sucks up through a sort of proboscis. What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body—a substance to prolong life—of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialized as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function.” Passages like this one separate Burroughs distinctly from the hard-boiled writers who inspired him. The end of the book takes up what will become a fertile subject for the writers of the 1960s—the growing police state in America. Burroughs is the originator of this in postwar American fiction, but he is also in line with his contemporaries such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. What happens is that addiction is criminalized and junkies have to flee to Mexico to be “free.” His analysis of policestate tactics in the war on junkies is incisive and very revealing about our society. He points out, for example, the ludicrousness of pushing junk on children, who would be terrible “customers,” but the feds insist the junk is being peddled in playgrounds. The novel ends with Lee quitting junk and moving on to search for a different kind of drug: yagé, which supposedly induces a telepathic state in users. Lee is more attracted to this: “What I look for in any relationship is contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling, that is, telepathic contact.” Yagé will give him this, he hopes, but this also explains his attraction to the culture of the junky, which is often nonverbal. One junky simply can spot another, “feel” where there is junk, a feeling he compares to water-witching. The glossary Burroughs includes points forward to his later interest in language as a “virus.” Of the slang defined in the book Burroughs writes, “It should be understood that the meanings of these words are subject to rapid changes. . . . A final glossary, therefore, cannot be made of words whose intentions are fugitive.” In other words, language can never grasp what it is trying to express because the meaning is “fugitive.”
   Junky succeeds on pure dare because of its subject matter. That it remains of interest is partially because Burroughs developed a style that captured the underlying symbolic meaning of the whole culture of junk. As a Beat book, it is a harsh critique of a police state that seeks to criminalize what Burroughs considers a victimless crime. The book’s point of view—that of someone far outside normal society—has great appeal to readers who want to radically reexamine our society. Burroughs thus successfully did what Kerouac wanted to do and what Kerouac would later do, partially inspired by this novel: use his own life as the basis of his writing. Yet, Burroughs’s life was far more dangerous and iconoclastic than Kerouac’s.
 Bibliography
■ Harris, Oliver. Introduction. Junky: The Definitive Text ofJunk,” by William S. Burroughs. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
■ Johnson, Rob. “William S. Burroughs: South Texas Farmer, Junky, and Queer.” Southwestern American Literature (Spring 2001): 7–35.
■ Murphy, Timothy S. Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
   Rob Johnson and Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • junky — (adj.) run down, seedy, trashy, 1876, from JUNK (Cf. junk) (n.1) + Y (Cf. y) (2) …   Etymology dictionary

  • junky — informal ► ADJECTIVE ▪ regarded as junk. ► NOUN (pl. junkies) variant spelling of JUNKIE(Cf. ↑junkie) …   English terms dictionary

  • junky — I. noun see junkie II. adjective see junk I …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Junky — …   Википедия

  • junky — junky1 /jung kee/, adj., junkier, junkiest. of the nature of junk; trashy. [1945 50; JUNK1 + Y2] junky2 /jung kee/, n., pl. junkies. junkie. [JUNK3 + Y2] * * * …   Universalium

  • junky — adjective Having the quality (or being like) junk, cheap or of low quality …   Wiktionary

  • junky — junk|y [ˈdʒʌŋki] n plural junkies another spelling of ↑junkie …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • junky — junk|y [ dʒʌŋki ] another spelling of junkie …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • junky — n a drug addict, a habitual user of hard drugs such as heroin or morphine. The term, derived from the word junk, became popular in the USA in the 1920s and spread to Britain and Australia in the 1950s. ► When we think of a junkie we picture the… …   Contemporary slang

  • junky — n. (Informal) drug addict, one who uses drugs; one who is addicted to or craves something; fan …   English contemporary dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.