Even as a young man, WILLIAM BURROUGHS (1914-97) looked like a member of the raincoat brigade, his apparent respectability ceding to a suggestion of limitless vice if you stared long enough. He sounded like W. C. Fields’ accountant nephew from Babbittville, and he had a fine way with maxims that instantly sounded like old saws: “No one owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.” In essence, he wrote three books. Junky (1953), which is succeeded by Queer (published 1985), is a sterling piece of pulp, artificial-paradises division. The continuous stream of Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and innumerable chapbooks and broadsides, concluding with The Wild Boys (1971) is his summit, a recombinant petri dish of hallucinations and cut-ups and jokes and asides that can be read upside-down or backwards to much the same effect. The message is: You are the host of a virus; the virus is life; you are fucked. His Cities of the Red Night trilogy (1981-87) attempts to graft the pulp style of Junky etc. onto the substance of Naked Lunch etc., but it fails in the same way as a cast-of-thousands movie. And he excelled as an actor; the act was seamless and permanent.
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