After the horrors I went through when I gave up my serious ibuprofen addiction last week (surprisingly messy), I thought a nice book about heroin would be a good way to relax once my own withdrawal symptoms were over.
Junky was William S. Burroughs’ first novel, and it is the frank, autobiographical anecdotalising of a few years of his life as an itinerant (though trust fund-funded) smack addict meandering around the US and Mexico. It opens with him receiving his first taste of heroin, and ends with him alone in Mexico City considering travelling south in the pursuit of yage, a drug he believes may be the cure from his addiction that he occasionally desperately wants.
It is open and writes about self-destruction in the way that I like – Burroughs is pretty disgusting: his blood is splattered across the pages, as are the complaints of constipation, the booze-induced blackouts, the violently peaking and troughing libido and his casual attitude to guns.* Over the course of 120 pages or so, he consumes pretty much every inebriating substance I’ve ever heard of (other than the ones that hadn’t been invented yet), he spends time in jail, he experiments with various “cures”, he has a lot of casual sex with men, tortures cats, briefly mentions the fact that he has a wife and child in the most unexpected of moments, is sick, is arrogant, is unsociable, deals drugs, steals drugs, eats drugs, smokes drugs, injects drugs… But he isn’t happy, which is how I managed to get through to the end.
His drug use is more in keeping with that of the thrill-seeking-but-never-finding-it Jack Kerouac than the criminally over-rated Hunter S. Thompson**: Burroughs needs his highs and his drugs but doesn’t want to need them. Sometimes. He is not the master of himself; he feels both strengthened and weakened by the opiates he consumes. Junky is full of bogus science, of heavy opinions stated as fact, but this is why it works. It is an insight into the life and the mind of a pickpocketing, hustling, petty dealing, little thieving, addict of the middle of the twentieth century.
In the book’s open attitude to sexuality and drug use in a specific time and place, Burroughs allows a reader to see and experience a life and a lifestyle (let’s be honest, it’s a fucking Penguin Modern Classic) pretty distant from his or her own. It is involving, it is interesting, and one gets a sense that it is quite resolutely accurate, if not honest.*** If it sounds like you’ll enjoy it, you probably will. Better than I was expecting.
* If your Beat history is up to anything at all, you’ll be aware that Burroughs accidentally killed his wife by shooting her in the head during a smacked-up game of “William Tell”. It’s as it sounds.
** Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is the worst book I have read in the last five years. Maybe I read it when I was too old, but in that time I have also read 101 Dalmatians and Little Women, both of which are aimed at children and both of which were EXCELLENT.
*** In the book the protagonist “separates” from his wife, rather than “shoots her in the head by mistake”.