Junky by William S. Burroughs
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.
William S. Burroughs’s Junky (originally published under the title Junkie) is an autobiographically-inspired romp through one man’s introduction to drugs, the addiction that ensues, and the many attempts-serious or not- to get sober. Burroughs’s tale is honest and to the point. Wild and unusual things happen, as they will when you and your closest acquaintances are all high, but they remain believable – unlike, say, the incredible escapades found in Electroboy or A Million Little Pieces. The main character and narrator (and author), Bill, is introduced to drugs off-handedly while a Midwestern youth. He begins to deal to make money, and the dealing eventually leads to using, which leads to more dealing and more using. The reader rides along as Bill makes his way to New York (where he spends some time in an asylum), down to New Orleans (where he barely escapes conviction) to Mexico, his ultimate refuge.
3 – Characters well developed.
Most of the minor characters remain minor and static throughout the novel, but Bill and his more regular acquaintances (keeping in mind that, in the world of the drug addict, few friendships last long) are told well – they are interesting to watch and, while you cannot really “root” for anyone, you still enjoy being along for the trip (double entendre?). The characters in Junky are also much more real, relatable, and believable than those in other Burroughs novels. While it is hard to reconcile the “on the go” lifestyle of the book’s main character (considering he seems to survive for quite some time without any money or income – he never works and rarely steals, at least so we are led to believe), the emotions of the addict, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the irrationality and the sobered sensibility are wonderfully realized through Bill. He is a complete do-nothing bum, really, but he is witty and entertaining, he is charming – in a way, and mysterious. All of this – the complexity of his character- makes the reader want to see a little bit more, know a little bit more, and it keeps the pages turning ‘til the end.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
The clear, naturalistic day-by-day story-telling, characteristic of The Beat generation, is also conducive to this sort of “witness” story. It allows the reader to connect with what is happening in the story, rather than feeling distanced as one will in later Burroughs works, like Naked Lunch or The Wild Boys. The story is also littered with clever, quotable phrases – clear psychological or metaphysical ideas which are presented here “in the nude” and are later re-examined, tortured, ripped apart and put back together in Burroughs future works. One such example, near the end, is the following: “There is something archaic in the stylized movements, a depraved animal grace at once beautiful and repulsive. I could see him moving in the light of campfires, the ambiguous gestures fading out into the dark. Sodomy is as old as the human species.” Several of Burroughs’s later examinations – natural and human law, beauty in the grotesque, and innate sexuality, are all posed here in this one, clear statement and, as one familiar with Burroughs, it is thrilling to see this clearly and to know to what lengths he will later go in exploration of the topics.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
The great thing about Burroughs is he really gets it. This is one of the first and best examples of drug-addiction writing (I cannot classify it as “fiction” with a clear conscience) because Burroughs has no need to exaggerate anything, in the way so many contemporary writers of the same topic do. He tells it like it is, he hints at the nastier sides of the living, and he explores equally the highs of being sober and the functioning ability of the addict. Though the novel is generally about Heroin addiction, Burroughs also explores other drugs, from marijuana and peyote to Cocaine and Morphine. Whether or not drugs interest you, per se, the examination of each against the other – the effects, the dangers, the results of mixing such-and-such of one with the other, is truly fascinating. It becomes clear that Burroughs knows what he is talking about (which, in a way, is rather sad) and is being honest with his readers. It’s as if he’s saying: “Look, guys, this is how it is – take it or leave” without getting too heavy-handed or political. Of course, the burgeoning U.S. laws regarding narcotics – the “crack down” in the states comes up near the end, and Burroughs makes it clear on which side of the argument he stands – both in words and actions. While his experiences and his positioning on the topic are not exactly laudable, the way he tells his story certainly is.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Society, Literature, Drug Culture, Beat Generation, GLBT
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