William S. Burroughs Goes Soft
Edited by James Grauerholz
(Grove Press, 273 pages, $25)
I always liked the idea of William Burroughs much more than I liked actually reading him. Nevertheless, I have a reasonably complete library of his books, and most all the John Giorno recordings he made. I still think Burroughs was one of the greatest stand-up (or in his case, sit-down) comedians America has ever produced. And he certainly tried his damnedest to change the nature of literature, of painting, of the very landscape of American culture through his various experiments?philosophical, chemical, esthetic or otherwise. And in that, no one can honestly say that he failed. Burroughs was like an alien among us, who didn't think like other people, didn't write like other people, and for that he certainly deserves our respect.
But that's all been said too many times before. Might as well get the rest of the expected adjectives out of the way now, so we won't have to worry about them later?junkie saint, homosexual, wife-killer, paranoid, gun nut, grand old man. Nothing new in any of those, either.
What is new with Last Words, however, is the almost human William Burroughs who occasionally pokes his head out from behind the curtain?the Burroughs who dotes on his cats and writes gushing fan letters to author M. Scott Peck.
It's common knowledge that the last few books released during his lifetime?The Cat Inside, My Education?were essentially produced by his longtime friend and manager, James Grauerholz, who sifted through old pieces, unpublished works and a mountain of index cards upon which Burroughs had scribbled his thoughts, to create something "new" that could be attributed to WSB. While Grauerholz was certainly central to pulling this new volume together (he's the one who first suggested Burroughs write in a journal instead of on index cards), you get a sense that it's more Burroughs you're reading here than Grauerholz. And it's a Burroughs who, knowing that he's at the end, reveals himself more than he ever has before.
So while there are old-style routines here, and rants against the drug war, and dreams?dozens of dreams?you also see Burroughs going to the doctor for blood tests, taking his biweekly trips to the methadone clinic in Kansas City and eating in his favorite diner. He comments on the books he's reading (from Conrad to science fiction to medical thrillers) and ponders all the ancient imponderables?aging, death and God. He mourns the loss of his friends, like Ginsberg, and mourns the loss of his beloved cats. In fact, the journal begins on Nov. 14, 1996, with Burroughs mourning a cat who'd been hit by a car four days earlier.
Mostly, it seems, he putters around the house. Early on, on the eve of receiving some sort of award, he writes, "You just live long enough, and you will become the grand old man of letters a bit tired with his very tired old jokes. Some bordering on the risque."
And here in the journals, as he had since the late 50s, he plays the Old Man role to the hilt?intentionally or not. That, unfortunately, is one of the big problems with the first third of Last Words: he spends a lot of time repeating himself, retelling routines we've seen already in Naked Lunch, Junky, Exterminator! and other early works, and heard recited on the Giorno recordings. So here's the "walking corpse" bit three more times, and the dusty Oppenheimer sketch twice. Granted, Burroughs is 83 at the time of these journals?he is an Old Man, but by all accounts he was still very sharp. Too sharp, I'd say, to be repeating himself this much. As he himself writes, "Any place you can't get out of is jail."
Perhaps he takes that to heart, because as the weeks and months pass, he moves away from the repetition of tired old routines about the drug war and the atomic bomb into a kind of splintered autobiography, preliminary notes for a new novel and version after version of a new routine. He recounts vague memories about Brion Gysin and their time at the Beat Hotel, various drug treatments he'd been through, his rage at Scientology and scenes from his days at the Los Alamos school when he was a youngster. We learn about his final conversation with Timothy Leary and get a brief history of the Burroughs family.
In the midst of it all, he quotes Verlaine: "My past was an evil river." As far as his present life is concerned, he provides everything from the mundane ("The plumber, 'Dirty Dave' arrived finally, and fixed the toilet") to the surprising (his fixation on the lead characters in Mary McCarthy's short story "The Young Man" and Mario Puzo's The Last Don) to the sad (his own doubt and despair concerning what he has done, and what he's still doing). "I had high hopes," he writes at one point. "We all did." Later he comments, "What I am writing here is lifeless and flat as old mud-splattered snow... They have sucked my talent away. Why should I longer stay?" Later still, while frustrated with the slow development of the new novel he hopes to write, he notes, "I hope I can write something before I buy the farm."
He also passes along some friendly advice to Timothy McVeigh, and vents at the man who's been leaving crank messages on his answering machine.
Though he never did write that novel, he has created something here. Something as close to a Burroughs autobiography as we're likely to see. He reconstructs his life in the form of a long and tangled dream, mixing past and present, reality and fantasy. Though he has a hard time remembering names, and many of the entries?which range from two lines to several pages in length?are composed of sentence fragments, it all makes a strange kind of sense, even if he leaves plenty of holes behind, plenty of questions unanswered. Come to think of it, at times it was more than a little reminiscent of The Last Words of Dutch Schultz.
There were times when, I must admit, I found myself wishing he had died 15 years earlier. There's no denying that the endless repetition found in these pages can be extremely frustrating. Every once in a while, though, right when you think you know where he's going to be spending the next page or two, he'll pop up with something completely unexpected. On March 24, he confirms one of my long-held theories by announcing, pretty much out of the blue, "Perhaps I am a hybrid with an alien." He leaves it at that, never mentioning it again.
The tone and direction of the journal changes rather dramatically at the beginning of April, when Ginsberg is diagnosed with liver cancer. While doctors were telling him that he had two or three months left, he confesses to Burroughs over the phone, "I think less." He died the next morning. Over the following weeks, Burroughs returns to Ginsberg repeatedly in the journal (after barely mentioning him beforehand), focusing not on their friendship so much, but on Ginsberg's influence, his character, the role he played in changing the world. At the same time, he also returns to the old routines and old jokes he was telling at the beginning, as if in an attempt to convince himself that he's had some influence, too.
On April 13, less than two weeks after Ginsberg's death, Burroughs suffered a mild heart attack. In his journal that day, he wrote:
This may be it... Any case, no fear. I could die tonight. I had the real dying feeling an hour or two ago. It will return, and heavier?
He had also scribbled what he believed would be his "last words" at the bottom of that page. After realizing that he was going to survive, he went back and tore out what he had written.
Now, I don't know if it was the same thing he wrote at the bottom of the page on July 30, days before he died, his final entry?whether it was something he was saving up, knowing they would be his last words, but they're startling, and profound and sad and completely unexpected.
Love? What is it?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
After nine months (and a lifetime) of railing against his critics, The Man, the stoolies, the government and the shits, of arguing that opposition and conflict provide the friction and the energy necessary for life to exist, to see him, in the end, talking about the healing powers of love seems to come completely out of left field.
Though maybe that's what he was hiding behind the curtain all along.
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