JUNKY - WILLIAM BURROUGHS
Ever wondered how William Burroughs started his career in heroin? No, me neither. In an interview recently with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones conducted at The Strand book store in New York, Jones revealed that he wasn't a great reader. No surprise there, really, but there was more. He went on to say that he's only ever actually read one book in his life and even now he couldn't say what it was about. And that book? Junky by William Burroughs.
Was Steve Jones being deliberately funny, I wonder? I mean, if you pick up a copy of Junky and you've never seen it before, there's a bit of a clue going on in the title as to what it's about. Or am I just being guilty of judging a book by its cover?
For the record, Burroughs first came into contact with heroin in the early 1940s when he was asked if he knew of anyone who might want to buy a stolen tommy-gun along with five one-half grain syrettes of morphine tartrate? Like Jarvis Cocker in Common People when being told by a girl at St Martin's College that she'd like to sleep with someone like him, Burroughs replied "I'll see what I can do."
In such circumstances it would have been rude not to have sampled the goods but road testing the tommy-gun was out of the question so that only left the morphine...
Before too long it's all pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches as Burroughs develops a healthy heroin habit and starts regaling us with tales of hustling doctors for prescriptions, robbing drunks on the subway, pushing 'the product', and encountering fellow denizens of the drug world.
All good stuff, of course, especially to a teenager or if read decades ago when this kind of subject matter was considered 'underground'. Unfortunately, in this day and age when you're viewed as being weird if you don't do drugs it's all very quaint and dare I say, innocent?
Might I also say that perhaps nowadays Junky should be kept in the 'Teen' section of any public library because reading it isn't going to entice anyone to experiment with heroin and in fact if anything it's going to put you off: 'I felt a cold burn over the whole surface of my body as though the skin was one solid hive. It seemed like ants were crawling around under the skin.' You'd be better off with a cup of cocoa, a biscuit and a quiet night in.
Junky was William Burroughs' first published novel and gives not the slightest hint of the experimentation and subject matters of his books to come. There's certainly nothing in it to suggest the Naked Lunch was in the offing. Then again, he hadn't yet killed his wife and in fact, she's even mentioned in Junky after he's arrested for possession and she gets him a lawyer and medical help when he's going cold turkey.
'Once a junky always a junky,' writes Burroughs but is that really true? I guess for Burroughs it was and for some, heroin is the end of the line and the only way out for them is dead but then for others it's just another gateway drug. For Burroughs, heroin led to yage, and as he puts it: 'The uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.'
Yage (along with the William Tell incident with his wife, and the meeting with Brion Gysin, it should be said) opened out Burroughs' writing into the full-blown mind bombs of his later works and as Norman Mailer put it, for Burroughs to become 'The only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius.'
These later works of Burroughs were years ahead of their time and in fact, I would argue that the world is still trying to catch up. But as for Junky, it hasn't really stood the test of time and this is accentuated by the inclusion of the glossary at the back of the book containing such gems as: 'Cat... A man. Chick... A woman. Dig... To size up, to understand, to like, or enjoy. Hep or Hip... Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands 'jive talk'. Someone who is 'with it'. Square... The opposite of hip. Someone who does not understand the jive.'
Are you hip? Do you know the score? Are you with it or are you square? Can you dig it? To the public library with you if not, to the 'Teen' section and pick up a copy of Junky. You've got a long way to go but you've got to start somewhere. Bear in mind, however, that cultural elitism is now passé. It's out the window. Anyone can now be hip, anyone can be a Sex Pistol, and anyone can be a junky. The future is yours. Or as the great philosopher Arthur Daly once said: "The world is your lobster"...