So William Burroughs too has passed into the night, a realm he knew intimately alive and will doubtlessly master dead. For Bill, through most of his 83 years, was more attuned to and focused on a world beyond the so-called normal than he was to the mundane matters we associate with daily living. He was truly, consistently and completely a rebel, a maverick, a freewheeling original who abhorred boundaries and any kind of restriction, social or artistic, and especially governmental. Throughout his life, he harbored a hatred of sham, hypocrisy, the cowardice of conformism, be it familial, peer or social--whatever could cause you to deviate from or compromise your true self. Diogenes with a knife and a gun.
Not to canonize the man: As a youth, he was in constant trouble. He wrecked the family car, got tossed out of schools, drank, was reclusive and moody. As the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine, William Seward Burroughs II, he was proudly named after his grandfather; by rights he should have been a millionaire. Fortunately, largely because his grandfather was as poor as a businessman as he was clever as an inventor, his watered-down “fortune” gave Bill a small monthly pension, just enough to give him the freedom to do what he wanted, provided poverty was not a deterrent.
For Burroughs--introverted, homosexual, depressive, junky--writing became his refuge. In the silence of his room, often a spare, rundown hotel room in a remote part of the globe, he could close the door to people and the world and create his own characters, his own time-space continuum.
Roughly the first half of his life was a constant, restless exploration of the flawed self and the more than flawed landscape of the second half of the 20th century. He lived in half a dozen countries, from Mexico to Colombia to France to Morocco, experimenting with drugs, living in an underworld of homosexuality and trafficking, in the largest sense of the term. His lifestyle of willful alienation, and his laser mind, increasingly attracted younger iconoclasts and “misfits” to him and, although he still had published nothing, he was at 40 fast becoming the guru of what would become known as the Beat Generation.
His masterful biographer, Ted Morgan, named him and titled his work “Literary Outlaw,” which was both apt and accurate. His fellow writer and fellow junky, Alex Trocchi, my closest friend for many years, once described himself as a “cosmonaut of inner space,” a description that fit Burroughs far more than it did Trocchi. Just before he turned 40, Burroughs finally published in 1953 his first novel, “Junky,” thanks to the efforts of Allen Ginsberg, who idolized him. Like most first novels, especially the new and different, “Junky,” an original paperback, was completely neglected. Not a single review. But at least he was a published author.
I met Burroughs in the spring of 1961, in Paris, at the dubious but sumptuous headquarters of one Maurice Girodias, another rebel, the founder-owner of Olympia Press, who had made a small fortune publishing Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” and was squandering the proceeds as quickly as possible by opening a restaurant on the Left Bank, La Grande Severine, the cellar of which was a tango-oriented Latin-band nightclub.
I was working for Grove Press, which had recently contracted with Burroughs to be the American publisher of “Naked Lunch,” and Grove owner Barney Rosset and I, who was to be his editor, were there to meet the man. Having read “Naked Lunch,” I was not sure what to expect, but whatever my mind’s eye had conjured up bore no resemblance to the real thing. Girodias and (I presumed) Burroughs were seated at a table at La Grande Severine, hardly speaking. Could this shy and distinguished-looking, bespectacled, neatly dressed gentleman, with his gaunt face and misty eyes, be the redoubtable author of the revolutionary novel? He looked more like a banker, or maybe an undertaker, than like a rebel with a cause. Polite to a fault, he seemed to me remote and withdrawn.
But as lunch progressed, and the wine flowed, he loosened up and began to talk about the genesis of the book: how and when he had written it over a long period and how the monstrous manuscript had been shaped and pared by his two Paris friends, Brion Gysin and Sinclair Belies. It had come out in France in a first printing of 10,000 copies, considerably more than the usual Olympia printing, and had been duly banned, as were all Olympia titles. But the desultory censors, who took six months to read and ban the books, gave readers time enough to snap up the first edition.
We explained to Burroughs that the climate in America was inauspicious, and we outlined our plan to change it. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” had been published, had been the subject of countless lawsuits but had finally prevailed in a federal court decision. Next was Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” due out that year. Then would come “Naked Lunch.”
He listened quietly, said he understood completely and indicated he would do whatever was needed to ensure American publication, adding, “providing I don’t have to promote the book personally in any way.” Personal promotion was much less prevalent than it is today, and we assured Burroughs that that would not be a problem. The parting was cordial, if formal. I left still puzzled, wondering if the man I had met wasthe real Bill Burroughs, author of some of the wildest, most innovative prose I had ever read.
Over the next 25 years, I edited eight more of Burroughs’ prose works in three incarnations: at Grove; at Seaver Books, a 1970s imprint of Viking; and at Henry Holt. We had a set pattern for preparing a manuscript. Burroughs would send in a new work only when he felt it was ready for press. “I would welcome your comments as usual,” he wrote at one point, “but I feel the manuscript is now as I want it.” I would read it, comment on it in detail and send it back. Then we would set up a time to meet, almost always in New York, where we would spend a full two or three days going through the manuscript page by page. The normal process.
But unlike so many other authors, Burroughs, who knew precisely what he wanted, never argued or lost his cool. If we disagreed, he would patiently explain the reason and background for a certain scene, a phrase, description, dialogue. Yes, dialogue: To make his point on this score, his wont was to read aloud the questioned passage, in his Midwestern twang, his voice altering from character to character unerringly.
His dour exterior belied the depth and extent of his humor, for Burroughs’ satire is scathing and his humor dark as pitch. I find him to be one of the truly funniest writers of our time. And his dialogues, especially read by him, are hilarious. (I only hope, before he departed, that his devoted followers found time to have Bill record key passages of his opus for future generations.) Scandalous, too. Burroughs was one of the rare writers who knew, by the nature of his subjects, by the unsparing rawness of his prose and by the complex, demanding nature of his novelistic structure, that he was doubtless condemning himself to commercial failure. We talked about this a lot, and though I never suggested toning anything down, I did tell him on several occasions that I doubted he could hope--at least in his lifetime--to reach a wide audience. “Later wouldn’t be bad,” he once murmured.
But the relative lack of commercial success never really seemed to rankle him. I told him, citing Beckett, whom he had met, that I was confident that in the long run he would prevail after the critics and erudites had done their digging and the world had caught up. And I believe Bill believed that, too. “Cities of the Red Night,” the last book I edited with him, enjoyed perhaps the greatest critical success since “Naked Lunch” and sold 20,000 hardcover copies, a respectable sale. It wasn’t mega, but the curve was upward.
At his 75th birthday party, he was in fine fettle, feted by young and old alike, the old guard protective, the young kowtowing to the impassive master. I looked at him with awe, at the Buster Keaton face beneath which lurked (I felt) an urge to roar with laughter; age had made its inroads, but he looked so very much like the man I had met almost 30 years before.
When he hit the tarmac of 80, not necessarily running but still shooting and creating (if essentially in graphic form now rather than in prose), I marveled at the tough inner core. God, he’d abused his body. No: used it in an endless harsh experiment. Anyway, looking at him, I figured he’d outlive us all. Then, when I heard the news, it occurred to me why he decided to go: With Jack and Gregory and Brion and so many others, and now Allen, already there paving the way, what the hell, it was high time for him to “join the room of the ruined warehouse swept by winds of time. . . .”