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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The junkie in literature: a reading list starting with ‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

monkey-gripFor whatever reason people do things, I’ve become hooked (pardon the pun) on the idea of reading a wide range of books about heroin addicts and their place in literature.

The heroin junky seems an enigmatic and romanticised character, living by their wits on the edges of society and always in the grip of their addiction.

There is a fascination with them in literature, at odds, in a way, with how one sees the junky in the real world – usually the beggar in unwashed rags sleeping in an alleyway.

The junky in fictionalised accounts is often the artist, or the poet, or at the very least someone who has lived an interesting life.

My interest in this subject was sparked after reading “Monkey Grip”, a celebrated Australian novel by Helen Garner.

Monkey Grip tells the story of Nora, a single-mum living in Melbourne in the mid-1970s who falls in love with a blue-eyed junkie called Javo. The title of the book refers to their relationship, which despite Nora’s attempts to pull away is as tight as a monkey grip.

(A REVIEW OF MONKEY GRIP IS AT THE END OF THIS POST)

I’ve compiled a reading list with the aim of writing an essay of sorts on the topic of “The Junky’s place in literature”.

Currently I am reading “Junky” by William S. Burroughs (1953), an autobiographical account of the writer’s life as an addict in the 1930 and 1940, which begins with Burroughs as user, pusher and petty thief in New York.

The other books on my list are:

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” by Thomas De Quincey (1821)

“Candy” by Luke Davis (1997)

“In My Skin” by Kate Holden (2005)

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

If any fellow bloggers or bookworms out there can recommend any other books that are about drug addiction or where one of the principal characters is a junkie, please drop me a line with the title and author – freshlyworded@gmail.com

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

Set in the inner city suburbs of Melbourne in the mid-1970s, Monkey Grip tells the story of single-mum Nora’s relationship with heroin addict and writer/actor Javo set against the back drop of house-sharing, addiction, loose parenting and easy sex.

Nora does not appear to have a job (Wikipedia says she does but not the novel I read) but lives a comfortable existence punctuated by bike rides to visit friends in other share houses, lots drinking and dope (marijuana) smoking, road trips, days spend lounging at the public swimming baths with her friends, afternoon naps, cups of tea in suburban kitchens, sitting on verandahs and musing, the retelling of dreams, and helping her friends through their different relationship and personal crises.

Critics of the novel have said it reads like the author’s personal diary entries and I can see what they’re getting at (Garner lived in Melbourne during this period of time and was most famously sacked as a teacher in 1972 for teaching sex education to her class of 13-year-olds, something that Nora would undoubtedly be comfortable doing).

Written as a first person narrative, Nora’s thoughts could be mistaken as those from her private  diary, as she tells of her daily comings and goings, what her friends might think of her relationships, describes dreams in vivid details and writes of Javo’s unannounced, but expected arrivals at her door at all hours of the day and night in various states of stoned-ness:

“Javo the monster. I don’t know him when he’s like this. I wish he would go away. He barely gives me the time of day. He blunders into my room at night, drops his great boots from waist height and crawls into bed beside me. This is not Javo. I know he doesn’t care and somehow neither do I. But I want him back, the way we used to be, when we loved each other with open hearts.”

Nora portrays Javo as charming and gentle and at other times, when the drugs have their grip on him as an uncaring, selfish bastard.

But this book is not so much about the nature of drug addiction but about what is like to be in love with a junkie.

Nora is both Javo’s lover as much as his anxious mother – nursing him when he suffers the sickness of withdrawal, allowing him to have his dole money paid into her bank account and worrying about where he may be and if he is safe. At the same time she is jealous and hurt when he confesses to sleeping with another woman.

At his worst he steals money, never keeps appointments and tells her about his relationship with other women. He is frequently unwashed, his skin breaking out into sores and scabs, his hair dishevelled – and yet she can never break free.

She constantly accuses him of being selfish, of only caring about his own needs and not noticing and caring about hers.

She says to him after he slips into his bed one night “very, very stoned”:

“When you came in here tonight I was right off my brick with the kids, and you didn’t even notice. You didn’t give a shit about what I have to do in my life.”

But she forgives him time and time again, pulled in by his piercing blue eyes, his charm and some sense of his kindness and generosity beneath the layers of his addiction.

But Nora is by no means an innocent. Despite having a young child (Gracie), she finds time to do a lot of drugs her self (weed), sleep through many afternoons, disappear to parties and on road trips (depositing Gracie with her friends) and invite men into her bed.

She is for ever questioning and undergoing a great deal of angst about her relationship to Javo.

Monkey Grip is considered a classic of Australian fiction. Indeed the front cover of the old copy I picked up at Basement Books in the city calls it “the best Australian novel of the year” for 1978.

But I have to say that I found the tale dragging at times and Nora annoying and not the most likeable of characters (a carefree, careless single mother who puts her own needs before those of her daughter).

She constantly agonises over Javo, resorting at numerous times to asking the ‘I Ching’ for relationship advise. The I Ching gives her sage advise, but she ignores it. The addiction to Javo is as strong as his to heroin.

Definitely worth reading. But in my opinion, Garner’s best works are her non-fiction books – Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the First Stone, which I highly recommend.