Book of da Week: Junky by William S. Burroughs

Junky by William S. Burrough
Don’t do drugs, kids.

If you’ve ever wanted to consume heroin, this short semi-autobiographical book will put you off. William S. Burrough’s notorious Junky will give you all the highs and lows associated with the drug, with the descriptions of agonisingly protracted withdrawal sessions enough to put anyone off for life.

What remains is a searing piece of beat generation writing from one eccentric bloke. William S. Burroughs (1914 – 1997) famously accidentally shot his wife dead in 1951 during a drunken and misguided attempt at William Tell (shooting an apple off someone’s head). He had a culpable homicide verdict stuck on him and, in 1953, had Junky published. We can’t think of a more bizarre road to publication than this one.

Junky

“It is a way of life”, writes Mr. Burroughs. Along with many other beat generation writers from the era, the author was steeped in culture, post-war hedonism, and fast living. The likes of Jack Kerouac and (in the ’70s) Charles Bukowski represented a loose way of living which has appealed to subsequent generations of youths, but with the hedonism there comes the downside.

Kerouac recalled this in thorough detail in the melancholic Big Sur, whilst Bukowski simply drank, was a nervous wreck, and maintained difficult relationships with fellow human beings (his works often refusing to entirely reflect this through his confident but feckless alter-ego Henry Chinaski).

Burroughs entered his private hell with addiction to heroin, with the book playing out a more personal and savage account of his struggles. It’s quite the mesmerising portrait of a decline and fall from a grace which simply wasn’t there to begin with.

Say “No!” To Drugs, Y’All!

With its detached, laconic writing style, the reader gets a glimpse into a peculiar world. Burroughs often describes the horrendous, drug induced situations he comes up against with a casual disbelief. At one stage he’s crashing down off heroin and alcohol but doesn’t seem overly concerned about this development. Just a little paranoid.

The real punch of Junky arrives when the author is attempting to dry out in heroin clinics, where he awaits his next come-down tablet to soothe the mania as he attempts to reel off eight days of anguish.

It’s candid – that’s the only way of putting it. Not unusually so, however, as there was already a literary tradition in place of covering such issues. Thomas De Quincey was a pioneer in this respect, writing of similar themes in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). He published it anonymously at the time, no doubt to avoid publicity in the event of a public scandal.

Times had changed by 1951 and along came Burroughs. It’s the brooding side to Hunter S. Thompson’s more psychedelic, fun tripping in Gonzo journalism novels such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That was a fun trip, but Junky is the harsh reality of it all, the side which often isn’t portrayed strongly enough to new generations on the pitfalls awaiting them.

Legacy

Trainspotting is the text (film and book) referred to these days when it comes to heroin. Rightly so, the film, in particular, is a special piece of work – there’s even a belated sequel on the way next year. Cripes… will that even be any good?

The message from both it and Junky is pretty obvious – take this stuff and you’ll become a bit of a weirdo. Watching Trainspotting and reading Junky should be enough to put you off for life, but the book stands as a rather powerful (a lame word, but useful for Burrough’s work) look at a dark and seedy world where the only things which await you are clammy sheets and babies crawling on ceilings. Have a cup of tea instead.

11 comments

  1. I’ve read Naked Lunch and seen/heard Burroughs in a few things. That voice he has is flat-out amazing. Never read Junky though, it’s somewhere on the (incredibly long) list of novels to eventually get round to. I’ll mentally bump it up a few places, fwiw.

    Funny (well, logical) that you mention De Quincey. His authorial voice carries him further than what he has to say, I think. Maybe I read the wrong edition of “Confessions…”. His way with the English language is utterly, utterly captivating though.

    • I’ve NOT read Naked Lunch. Perhaps as I don’t like eating lunch naked… or maybe I’m reading too much into the title. I shall put it on my list.

      It’s been 10 years since I read De Quincey’s book, but I do remember he was a fabulous writer. There’s simply something entertaining about writers scrawling out their horror stories on paper. I’ll be covering Fear and Loathing, which is one of the ultimate trips.

  2. Due to this terrific review, Junky is now on my read list.
    I know Burroughs work, but have not read Junky. Fear & Loathing & Naked Lunch are very interesting reads, and don’t worry, you don’t need to eat a lunch, let alone naked.
    Also, although I know of Bukowski, could you advise a book. I’m embarrassed to say the most I know is “Bar Fly”, the movie about Bukowski starring Mickey Rourke & Faye Dunaway.
    Pretty great movie!

    • Groovy! It’s a quick read as well, being a short book. With Bukowski, start with Post Office or Factotum. I read the latter first. They’re incredibly brief and you’ll blast through them – very amusing, although incredibly rude and vulgar. You have been warned.

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