THE cautionary tale is one of the casualties of the 21st century -- along with telegrams, Playboy magazine and poise. Sex tapes are released, and the only time eyes blink are to swish away tears of scornful laughter. Lawsuits and settlements are the new bootstraps by which one aims to pull oneself up. When all is forgiven, when no one really cares anymore about things like shame and personal ruin -- after all, it didn't happen to you -- what place has such a story in the modern world?
These questions seem particularly appropriate when it comes to William S. Burroughs Jr., the son of a Beat Generation icon, born in 1947 in Conroe, Texas, to a heroin-addicted father and a free spirit, Joan Vollmer, whose Benzedrine consumption continued while Jr. was in the womb. He was the embodiment of the "live fast, die young" aesthetic, a wild child who barely made it to 33.
The legacy of his father was impossible to live up to, and Jr. never found an identity of his own. Indeed, after the 1951 death of Vollmer by his father's hand (the two were playing William Tell with a handgun and a glass; he missed and shot her in the forehead), the 4-year-old moved in with his paternal grandparents, seeing his father only three times over the next decade. As an adult, he bounded from odd job to odd job (short-order cook, door-to-door salesman), floating on psychotropic highs and writing sporadically.
In "Cursed From Birth," David Ohle's incisive, devastating compilation of Jr.'s final writings, there are pages of a planned book, "Prakriti Junction," begun in 1977. Its remains follow portions of the autobiographical novels "Speed" (1970) and "Kentucky Ham" (1973) and are interspersed with letters from father to son, recollections by Allen Ginsberg, St. Mark's Church Beat poet Anne Waldman, friend and executor of the Burroughs legacy James Grauerholz and the instantly pervasive saturnine croak of the elder Burroughs himself.
The line on Jr. is shy, blase, talented but unwilling to work at it. He was self-annihilating in even the most subconscious ways, like keeping syringes in the tone arm of the record player at the progressive reform school he attended. Burroughs bemoans the nonchalance with which Jr. experiences Tangier: "When I first went to Tangier I was forty, but at sixteen I would have been transported. But it didn't seem to make any more difference to him than if he had gone to Toledo, Ohio."
By 1975, Jr. had multiple problems with drugs and alcohol and had spent time in jails in New York City, Florida's Palm Beach County, Lexington, Ky., and Wells, Nev. He had seen the world. But still he drank, despite the help of his father, Ginsberg, Grauerholz and a small army of doctors and nurses.
Occasionally, pere et fils appeared together at literary readings. The proceeds from these became liquid assets for the increasingly kill-eyed kid. After a liver transplant courtesy of a young lady who died suddenly, Jr. considered himself "part woman," a frame of mind charted in an American Journal of Psychiatry case report. The surgery was such that his navel itself was obliterated -- perhaps another sublime reference to his mother's passing; another curse made flesh.
Jr.'s numerous anecdotes are almost as tantalizing as the specter of his wasted promise. He's always missing death by this much: by motor crash, by overdose, by a rotting liver. He notes that being a direct descendant of the Beat Generation was like "drowning in the ocean as you watch the ship pull farther and farther away."
In the Burroughs family, there was the saying: "Some things are better left unsaid" -- which is possibly why his father failed to explain to his son the circumstances surrounding his mother's death. At one point, Jr. asks his father for a photo of his mother after he realizes that he doesn't have one -- this after Ginsberg had showed Jr. a morgue photograph of Vollmer with the gunshot wound, sagely guessing that Jr. "needed a sobering thing."
The cursed flesh was such that Jr. needed a cane to walk due to arthritis, and he developed photophobia -- a disease of the eyes -- due to steroid intake related to the liver surgery. An entire page here is devoted to a single word: "pain." Wrote Ginsberg: "He lacked a support system ... we were all holding him at arm's length. William kept him at arm's length, like everybody else. He was busy writing novels." To Jr., narcotics were the doors to perception -- even as he perceived that his purpose in life was to die, which he did on March 3, 1981. He was cremated and buried beneath stones near Boulder, Colo.
In his way, he was the first of his kind: injected with undue expectation because of who his parents were and the particular subset of things they did. Write. Carouse. Drink. Fail. Die. This was the legacy of the Beat Generation, foisted upon his miserable soul even while he drank and argued and drank some more. "An artist out of work," he wrote, "is nothing. In his act of creation is his only real existence." Imagine, someone talking himself out of his talents like that, so casually. How sad. *