Junky takes a while to get into. No, that’s not right… It’s more that it takes a while to orient oneself within it. At any rate, once you have your bearings, it is magnificent. There’s a strange claustrophobia to the prose. The reader lives mostly in Lee’s head, locked away with his thoughts. Lee is the pen name Burroughs under which first wrote Junky. It’s strange seeing the name “Lee” still there in the prose, like a fictional character but not, which I suppose is more or less what he is. Junky is described as a novel, and how much of it is true I cannot guess. I gave Burroughs the benefit of the doubt; even if the facts aren’t true, I trust the essence of it is.
Descriptions of cities and people are rich and layered and half-metaphor. He hardly ever speaks about his wife. People are half-known knots of quirks, places are dirty-white and picked out in junk – that is to say, heroin. You want to know more about these people. You want detail. All you get is a drug-dream of scenes, people drifting in and out of the prose like comets appearing and disappearing in the sky. What happened to these people? Did they die? Often even Burroughs doesn’t know. Some disappear for us as they do for him, but others must stay in his life and thoughts but fall from the narrative. He does not mention his famous friends, like Ginsberg, who got him writing in the first place and acted as his agent.
Burroughs focuses on the junk, and forgoes much else. Friendships, relationships. Even the terrible incident in which, quite drunk, he proposed his wife put a glass on her head so they could play at William Tell, and shot her dead. The result of this approach is a feeling of strange isolation, anxiety, and loneliness. There’s a detachment to it that I can only imagine is much like the effect of junk. If intentional, it’s genius. (I have never tried it myself; I was given morphine in hospital and thought the nurses were slipping me placebos until I filled my script at a pharmacy and it wasn’t any better. I seem to be insensitive to the stuff. I am not keen on trying heroin just to make sure.)
Burroughs is brilliant with characters. He paints them as utterly real, even if we only know them for a moment, half a page. Perhaps we get only a fleeting impression of them – the set of their eyes, the coat they are wearing, as they speak with Lee about cops or communists. Small impressions, ones one would make about any person they crossed paths with in a day. In this way, they are completely believable. More than that, they are interesting, in the way that a person one spots on the bus with a lined face or a set to their shoulders might get us thinking about who they were, what they did, who they were going home to – sketching out little lives for strangers. You can do this for any of the characters he meets. Places are much the same, isolated little universes where the lives lived there have sunk into the place. Lee claims he can spot any junk neighbourhood with some sixth sense, like dowsing rods in the blood, even if the junkies have moved on. He is a spiritual person, a thoughtful person, mixing biology and philosophy and new age ideas as he describes junk and its effects.
I keep calling it “junk” because he does. It means more than just heroin – morphine too, and others – so I feel strange not using his term. I’m one of those people who does that with particular authors. Their figures of speech leech into my brain. I got “Oh, so?” from Scrooge McDuck comics and people have no idea what I mean, but it’s so useful.
(Don’t worry, there’s a glossary in the back. You’ll pick up the hip lingo.)
The clamping down of the US government on drug use sent Burroughs abroad. When a friend of his comes down to visit him in Mexico, they speak about their old set from New York. The drug laws left many of them in a very bad way, including one I had been particularly fond of; learning his fate was devastating, though he hadn’t been mentioned for a good third of the book by that point. I want to know his whole story, now. More than that… I want to write it.