The junkie in literature: a review of William S. Burrough’s “Junkie”

“Junkie” by influential Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs is the second book I’ve read as part of a mini-project of mine to examine the place of the heroin junky in literature.

The first book I read was “Monkey Grip by Australian author Helen Garner about a single mother’s tortuous relationship with a junkie set in Melbourne in the 1970s. You can read my review of this novel here.

Whereas “Monkey Grip” is very much from the point of view of someone observing a junky’s addiction to heroin, “Junkie” throws you right into what it is like to be an addict and the world that exists around them.

Burroughs presents an incredibly honest account of his life as a junky revealed in a concise, perfectly-worded tale.

After a brief introduction about himself (where we learn that he had a good, healthy upbringing in a “large mid West town”) we find Burroughs dismissed from the army as unfit and living in New York City in the 1940s, addicted to junk and peddling it as well.

Burroughs has a nack of describing the essence of an experience. For example when talking of New York junky and pusher Bill Gains “whose veins had mostly gone, retreated back to the bone to escape the needle”, he writes:

“For a while he used arteries, which are deeper than veins and harder to hit and for this procedure he bought special long needles…he had to shoot in the skin about half the time. But he only gave up and ‘skinned’ a shot after an agonizing half hour of probing and poking and cleaning out the needle, which would clot up with blood”

In New York, Burroughs mingles with peddlars, low-lifes and average joes (waiters and bar tenders) that are hooked on heroin. Burroughs becomes a “lush worker” with his junkie pal Roy. They ride the subway train and look for drunks that have passed out and steal their wallets.

It’s all told in this sparse, lay-it-down-straight style that hides nothing.

Burroughs has an exceptional ability to convey the sense a character in just a few simple sentences:

“Lonny was pure pimp. He was skinny and nervous. He couldn’t sit still and he couldn’ shut up. As he talked he moved his thin hands, which were covered on the backs with long, greasy, black hairs.

“Gains had a malicious, childlike smile that formed a shocking contrast to his eyes, which were pale blue, lifeless and old.”

And not just when it comes to junkies. While in a hospital getting “the cure’, he writes of one patient:

“There was a thin, pale, little man with bloodless, almost transparent, flesh. He looked like a cold and enfeebled lizard…he did not have the concentration of energy necessary to hold himself together and his organism was always on the point of disintegrating into its component parts.”

According to Burroughs, contrary to what people might believe, developing a habit takes time. You don’t get hooked on the first or second shot. It can take months, but one day you wake up, look up in the mirror, and something has changed about you.

Once you get hooked, even if you manage to get off, heroin is always a part of you, because it caused “permanent cellular alteration”.

The story transfers to the seedy backstreets of New Orleans, where Burroughs is busted. He is locked in a cell, while the cops try to get him to rat on his suppliers, and the junk sickness kicks-in.

Throughout the book, Junk sickness is described in a way that you understand it’s malevolence:

“Doolie sick was an unnerving sight. The envelope of personality was gone, dissolved by his junk-hungry cells. Viscera and cells, galvanised into a loathsome, insect-like activity, seemed on the point of breaking through the surface. His face was blurred and unrecognisable, at the same time shrunken and tumescent.

Writing of his own junk sickness, the awfulness of it can be imagined:

“In my case, the worst thing is lowering of blood pressure with consequent loss of body liquid, and extreme weakness, as in shock. It is a feeling as if the life energy has been shut off so that all the cells in the body are suffocating. As I lay there on the bench I felt like I was subsiding into a pile of bones.”

Burroughs also reveals other aspects of the junky life from the “croakers” – the doctors who write  fake prescriptions to “taking the cure” – going into rehab, and the medicine you get and what works and what does not.

And he manages to incorporate social commentary (his contention that marijuana is a not an addictive drug) and political observations of the time (Louisana passing a law making it illegal to be  drug addict), while describing his own hellish plight.

It’s a book about his adventures as a junky, the pimps, low-lifes, artists, con-artists, cops and doctors he meets on his travels.

In the end it’s also a warning against heroin addiction:

“Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness. Everyone now and then I took a good look at the deal I was giving myself and decided to take the cure.”

William S Burroughs at his typewriter, circa 1960.

The back of the book contains a glossary of terms, which is worth reading to pick up the lingo while my edition included an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, fellow Beat poet and Burroughs admirer who was instrumental in getting the controversial book published in 1953.

Truly a book ahead of its time.

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