Wednesday, December 27, 2006

William S. Burroughs Jr., doomed from the start, wrote amazing novels before he died at age 33

Cursed From Birth

The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr.

By William S. Burroughs Jr.; edited and compiled by David Ohle

SOFT SKULL PRESS; 210 Pages; $13.95

It would be easy to write off Billy Burroughs Jr. as just one more tragic child of the Beats -- indeed, that's what a lot of people did, including many members of the Beat entourage who should have known better. But the important thing about Billy's life was not how quickly or painfully it ended but how much he actually got done in his short time on earth.

Although he died just short of his 34th birthday (in 1981), he had already written and published two of the best novels to come from the younger Beat Generation -- "Speed" and "Kentucky Ham" -- and was well along on the third novel of his trilogy, "Prakriti Junction," whose fragment is included in "Cursed From Birth," along with journal entries, correspondence, interviews, medical reports and other material that fleshes out the final years of his story.

If people could indeed choose the situation of their birth, no one would have chosen to be Billy Burroughs Jr. He was drug-addicted in the womb of his mother, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, as she used vast amounts of Benzedrine -- speed -- during her pregnancy, while his old man -- later to become the infamous author of "Naked Lunch" -- raised marijuana and shot lizards for target practice in the wasteland of south Texas. That sordid scene, a sort of demonic inversion of the happy Norman Rockwell American household, was described by Jack Kerouac in "On the Road."

A few years later, the elder Burroughs shot Billy's mother, killing her, in a game of William Tell in Mexico City. At the age of 4, Billy was spirited off by his wealthy paternal grandparents, heirs to the Burroughs adding-machine fortune, and raised in Palm Beach, Fla., where he saw his father on brief visits maybe once a year. Predictably, he got in trouble early with drugs, guns and -- most unlike his gay, misogynistic father -- girls. By the time Billy was 16, in the early 1960s, he was living on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City and beginning the severe damage he would inflict on his liver by shooting methedrine several times a day. Later, he would also become an alcoholic. At 29, he had a liver transplant to save his life after severe esophageal bleeding, but he did not curb his alcoholism. Five years later, he died alone in Florida, his body found along the side of a road, according to one story.

But somehow those stark outlines, however dramatic, and however colorful an addition they provide to the legend of his outlaw father, don't really tell much of the story of this sensitive and bighearted young man, who was a natural writer. Despite all the writing programs in the world, there is something that can't be taught -- the ability to use words in a way that makes others fully see and hear and experience what you experienced -- and Billy had that ability in spades. "Cursed From Birth" is chock-full of passages that are just plain good writing, apart from any Beat resonance. Read More...

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