QUEER - WILLIAM BURROUGHS
On first moving to Devon it felt like stepping back into the 1970s before I realised it wasn't time that moved slower down here but news. Rumours are just starting to circulate, for example, that Margaret Thatcher has died. Could it be true? A nation will mourn, surely? Or perhaps not?
What this means is that there are people here who don't yet realise school is over and there are no more lessons to be learned. That the school gates are wide open and we're liberated - free to run riot.
What this also means is that you can be sat on a train reading Mein Kampf and no-one will bat an eyelid but sit down and start reading Queer by William Burroughs and blokes will start eyeing you up for either a fight or a bit of cottaging in the gents.
Compared to say, The Naked Lunch, Queer is a very straight story. Straight as in narrative, not in sexual orientation for there's lashings of homosexual lust in it. Actually, he's a bit creepy isn't he, William Burroughs? Lusting after young boys, gazing upon them as they play. Can this behaviour be forgiven? It was another world back then, of course, and for Burroughs it was really another world, distorted by junk sickness and strung out in heavens high hitting an all time low. But still, how are his confessions meant to be taken these days?
Queer relays the story of the love for a guy called Gene Allerton by William Lee (Burroughs' alter ego) and his attempts to get to know him and ultimately to get him into bed. It's a kind of love story, then, though also a story of obsession, addiction and junk sickness.
Lee does eventually get to bed down with Allerton but it's when Lee persuades him to go on a journey to South America that things get really interesting. Lee's on a quest to find a source of Yage and once they get going it allows Burroughs to slip into his florid descriptions and anecdotes that he's so renowned for, though in this book there's no evidence at all of cut-up. It's all his own work as fevered words trip off his tongue like a man delirious.
At one point, Lee's in a bar launching into a full-blown monologue about a time at the headwaters of the Zambezi where he traded a keg of paregoric for a boy, then later in Timbuktu trying to trade the boy for another model at Corn Hole Gus's Used-Slave Lot:
'Gus rushes out and goes into the spiel: "Ah, Sahib Lee. Allah has sent you! I have something right up your ass, I mean, alley. Just came in. One owner and he was a doctor. A once-over lightly, twice-a-week-type citizen. It's young and it's tender. In fact, it talks baby talk... behold!"
"You call those senile slobberings baby talk? My grandfather got a clap off that one. Come again, Gussie."
"You do not like it? A pity. Well, everyone has a taste, feller say. Now here I have a one-hundred-percent desert-bred Bedouin with a pedigree goes straight back to the Prophet. Dig his bearing. Such pride! Such fire!"
"A good appearance job, Gus, but not good enough. It's an albino Mongolian idiot. Look, Gussie you are dealing with the oldest faggot in the Upper Ubangi, so come off the peg. Reach down into your grease pit and dredge out the best-looking punk you got in this moth-eaten bazaar."
"All right Sahib Lee, you want quality, right? Follow me, please. Here it is. What can I say? Quality speaks for itself. Now, I get a lotta cheap-type customers in here wanna see quality and then scream at the price. But you know and I know that quality runs high. As a matter of fact, and this I swear by the Prophet's prick, I lose money on this quality merchandise."
...... "O.K., now, what can you give me on this Lulu-Effendi? Perfect condition. Just overhauled. He don't eat much and he don't say nothing."
"Jesus, Lee! You know I'd cut off my right nut for you, but I swear by my mother's cunt, may I fall down and be paralysed and my prick fall off if these mixed jobs ain't harder to move than a junky's bowels."'
And so on, until Lee suddenly looks around and sees that the bar he's in is empty and that he's delivering his monologue to no-one, so he pays for his drinks and walks out into the night. (In fact, this sounds like a typical night out down The Phoenix pub, in Exmouth, though that's a whole other story).
Whilst reading Queer a thought occurred to me: Did William Burroughs ever meet Timothy Leary and if so, did they get on? Opiates and psychedelics and did ever the twain meet? Thanks to the wonders of new technology and a quick Google search, lo and behold there they both are looking like the best of friends. Isn't the Internet wonderful? But I digress.
Queer isn't William Burroughs best book - for that I would nominate Cities Of The Red Night - but it's still very good, very funny and very interesting particularly if you know anything about Burroughs and his oeuvre as this is the book that for some reason wasn't published until 1985, over 30 years after first being written.
It's an enjoyable read but for enhanced enjoyment of it I'd recommend reading it on a train. In Devon.
There they are