Reviews

Junky by William S. Burroughs (Penguin Modern Classics, paperback)

I have avoided reading the work of William S. Burroughs  for a very long time. From what I read about him and was told by friends, he was experimental. I heard about his  (in)famous cut-up technique. A friend read The Soft Machine. He struggled all the way through and then pronounced it unreadable. But I’m going through a Penguin Modern Classics kick at the moment and picked up a copy of Junky in a bargain bookshop and opened a random page to heck it out. On first glance it appeared to be written in English and all the words were in an order that made sense to me. I read the blurb on the back and decided to give it a try.

Admittedly, the word trepidation crept into my mind each time I caught sight of it in my to-read pile. But eventually it got to the top and I could think of no sustainable excuse for passing it over.

Junky is very much a product of its time. For instance, there is a glossary at the back explaining the slang words that are used throughout. There might have been one that I did not immediately recognise and less than half a dozen not in common usage during the last thirty years but when he wrote it in the late-forties/early-fifties I can imagine that it was daring and ground breaking.

I would consider myself averagely cosmopolitan and fairly well informed on the subject of drugs but I have to admit that I found junky to be somewhat of an education. This is a novel, though it is as much autobiography, told from the first person perspective of a junk fiend – the author’s usage. It is honest and straightforward in its handling of the underbelly of society inhabited by such fiends and discusses frankly and matter-of-factly all of the aspects of being a drug addict, though a strangely middle-class one it must be admitted. The book is prefaced with a biography of the main character who comes from a well-to-do Middle American background. Burroughs himself is the scion of the family that owned the largest business machine company in the US in the first half of the twentieth century and invented the calculator, though not the pocket-sized one.

What surprised me most was that he stayed out of the gutter. He always had somewhere to live and could always raise the money for a score – mostly through petty frauds rather than outright larceny.  And he, and all of his junkie acquaintances were always on the brink of taking a cure – did in fact take the cure regularly.

Junky is Burroughs’s first book and is written in a very straightforward, almost journalistic, style. It is a short, quick read and a superb glimpse behind the curtains of the fifties counterculture – Burroughs was friends with beat generation icon Jack Kerouac and Junky was championed by Allen Ginsberg. If you want to try Burroughs then I can highly recommend Junky as a painless and fascinating introduction to the man., if not his body of work.

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