Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch,' Still Fresh At 50

William Burroughs, January 1965 i i

William S. Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. He died in 1997 at the age of 83. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Evening Standard/Hulton Archive
William Burroughs, January 1965

William S. Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. He died in 1997 at the age of 83.

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive
Naked Lunch
By William S. Burroughs
Hardcover, 320 pages
Grove Press
List price: $24

Read An Excerpt

First published 50 years ago, William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch is a dark, wild ride through the terror of heroin addiction and withdrawal, filled with paranoia, erotica and drug-fueled hallucinations.

In an introduction (of sorts) to the novel, Burroughs wrote that the book was a result of "detailed notes on sickness and delirium" that he took during his 15 years of heroin addiction. As he explained in a 1985 interview: "It was just my character. ... I always was attracted to the run-down, or the old or the offbeat."

Burroughs hadn't always intended to be a man of letters. An heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, he initially studied medicine at Harvard before falling into the group of misfit writers who eventually evolved into "The Beats." Though Burroughs said his work had little in common stylistically with fellow Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he credits their encouragement in helping him get started.

"I sort of resisted the idea of being a writer," he said. "But Jack [Kerouac] definitely did encourage me. And he said that I would write a novel called ... Naked Lunch. That's his title, Kerouac."

Burroughs described the novel as "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of every fork." Poet Anne Waldman says that at the time it was published, Naked Lunch offered a stark contrast to the prevailing vision of reality during the Eisenhower years:

"It's not the woman with her Kelvinator refrigerator, opening the door to show you how crisp the lettuce stays," says Waldman. "It's the 'naked lunch' ... where you see reality clearly, you see the lettuce decomposing."

That shocking reality caused a furor when excerpts were published in the University of Chicago's literary magazine in 1958. A Paris pornographer took note and published Naked Lunch in France the following year. Then in 1962, Grove Press issued the first American edition. A year later, a Boston bookstore owner was arrested for selling it.

During the obscenity trial, the book was defended by writers Norman Mailer, Ginsberg and John Ciardi. Finally, in 1966, a high court ruled that the book had redeeming social value and was therefore not obscene.

Regina Weinreich, who teaches Beat Generation literature at New York's School of Visual Arts, believes the novel represents an alternative way of life, one that focuses on the individual as opposed to the masses.

"It cuts through the norms of society — the way that we all have to be polite, the way we all have to follow our institutions, our governments, our addictions," Weinreich explains. "The alternative is to be [an] individual, and to go to those places on our own."

To date, Naked Lunch has sold more than 1 million copies; a 50th anniversary edition of the novel is due out next month from Grove Press.

Excerpt: 'Naked Lunch'

Naked Lunch
By William S. Burroughs
Hardcover, 320 pages
Grove Press
List price: $24.00
Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

and

start

west

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train..Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type: comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick's by his first name. A real asshole. And right on time this narcotics dick in a white trench coat (imagine tailing somebody in a white trench coat. Trying to pass as a fag I guess) hit the platform. I can hear the way he would say it holding my outfit in his left hand, right hand on his piece: "I think you dropped something, fella."

But the subway is moving.

"So long flatfoot!" I yell, giving the fruit his B production. I look into the fruit's eyes, take in the white teeth, the Florida tan, the two hundred dollar sharkskin suit, the button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and carrying The News as a prop. "Only thing I read is Little Abner."

A square wants to come on hip...Talks about "pod," and smoke it now and then, and keeps some around to offer the fast Hollywood types.

"Thanks, kid," I say, "I can see you're one of our own." His face lights up like a pinball machine, with stupid, pink affect.

"Grassed on me he did," I said morosely. (Note: Grass is English thief slang for inform.) I drew closer and laid my dirty junky fingers on his sharkskin sleeve. "And us blood brothers in the same dirty needle. I can tell you in confidence he is due for a hot shot." (Note: This is a cap of poison junk sold to addict for liquidation purposes. Often given to informers. Usually the hot shot is strychnine since it tastes and looks like junk.) "Ever see a hot shot hit, kid? I saw the Gimp catch one in Philly. We rigged his room with a one-way whorehouse mirror and charged a sawski to watch it. He never got the needle out of his arm. They don't if the shot is right. That's the way they find them, dropper full of clotted blood hanging out of a blue arm. The look in his eyes when it hit—Kid, it was tasty...

"Recollect when I am traveling with the Vigilante, best Shake Man in the industry. Out in Chi...We is working the fags in Lincoln Park. So one night the Vigilante turns up for work in cowboy boots and a black vest with a hunka tin on it and a lariat slung over his shoulder.

"So I say: 'What's with you? You wig already?'

"He just looks at me and says: 'Fill your hand stranger' and hauls out an old rusty six shooter and I take off across Lincoln Park, bullets cutting all around me. And he hangs three fags before the fuzz nail him. I mean the Vigilante earned his moniker...

"Ever notice how many expressions carry over from queers to con men? Like 'raise,' letting someone know you are in the same line?

"'Get her!'

"'Get the Paregoric Kid giving that mark the build up!'

"'Eager Beaver wooing him much too fast.'

"The Shoe Store Kid (he got that moniker shaking down fetishists in shoe stores) say: 'Give it to a mark with K.Y. and he will come back moaning for more.' And when the Kid spots a mark he begin to breathe heavy. His face swells and his lips turn purple like an Eskimo in heat. Then slow, slow he comes on the mark, feeling for him, palpating him with fingers of rotten ectoplasm.

"The Rube has a sincere little boy look, burns through him like blue neon. That one stepped right off a Saturday Evening Post cover with a string of bullheads, and preserved himself in junk. His marks never beef and the Bunko people are really carrying a needle for the Rube. One day Little Boy Blue starts to slip, and what crawls out would make an ambulance attendant puke. The Rube flips in the end, running through empty automats and subway stations, screaming: 'Come back, kid!! Come back!!' and follows his boy right into the East River, down through condoms and orange peels, mosaic of floating newspapers, down into the silent black ooze with gangsters in concrete, and pistols pounded flat to avoid the probing finger of prurient ballistic experts."

And the fruit is thinking: "What a character!! Wait till I tell the boys in Clark's about this one." He's a character collector, would stand still for Joe Gould's seagull act. So I put it on him for a sawski and make a meet to sell him some "pod" as he calls it, thinking, "I'll catnip the jerk." (Note: Catnip smells like marijuana when it burns. Frequently passed on the incautious or uninstructed.)

"Well," I said, tapping my arm, "duty calls. As one judge said to another: 'Be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary.'"

I cut into the Automat and there is Bill Gains huddled in someone else's overcoat looking like a 1910 banker with paresis, and Old Bart, shabby and inconspicuous, dunking pound cake with his dirty fingers, shiny over the dirt.

I had some uptown customers Bill took care of, and Bart knew a few old relics from hop smoking times, spectral janitors, grey as ashes, phantom porters sweeping out dusty halls with a slow old man's hand, coughing and spitting in the junk-sick dawn, retired asthmatic fences in theatrical hotels, Pantopon Rose the old madam from Peoria, stoical Chinese waiters never show sickness. Bart sought them out with his old junky walk, patient and cautious and slow, dropped into their bloodless hands a few hours of warmth.

I made the round with him once for kicks. You know how old people lose all shame about eating, and it makes you puke to watch them? Old junkies are the same about junk. They gibber and squeal at the sight of it. The spit hangs off their chin, and their stomach rumbles and all their guts grind in peristalsis while they cook up, dissolving the body's decent skin, you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk. Really disgust you to see it.

"Well, my boys will be like that one day," I thought philosophically. "Isn't life peculiar?"

So back downtown by the Sheridan Square Station in case the dick is lurking in a broom closet.

Like I say it couldn't last. I knew they were out there powwowing and making their evil fuzz magic, putting dolls of me in Leavenworth. "No use sticking needles in that one, Mike."

I hear they got Chapin with a doll. This old eunuch dick just sat in the precinct basement hanging a doll of him day and night, year in year out. And when Chapin hanged in Connecticut, they find this old creep with his neck broken.

"He fell downstairs," they say. You know the old cop bullshit. Junk is surrounded by magic and taboos, curses and amulets. I could find my Mexico City connection by radar. "Not this street, the next, right...now left. Now right again," and there he is, toothless old woman face and canceled eyes.

I know this one pusher walks around humming a tune and everybody he passes takes it up. He is so grey and spectral and anonymous they don't see him and think it is their own mind humming the tune. So the customers come in on Smiles, or I'm in the Mood for Love, or They Say We're Too Young to Go Steady, or whatever the song is for that day. Sometimes you can see maybe fifty ratty-looking junkies squealing sick, running along behind a boy with a harmonica, and there is The Man on a cane seat throwing bread to the swans, a fat drag queen walking his Afghan hound through the East Fifties, an old wino pissing against an El post, a radical Jewish student giving out leaflets in Washington Square, a tree surgeon, an exterminator, an advertising fruit in Nedick's where he calls the counterman by his first name. The world network of junkies, tuned on a cord of rancid jissom, tying up in furnished rooms, shivering in the junk-sick morning. (Old Pete men suck the black smoke in the Chink laundry back room and Melancholy Baby dies from an overdose of time or cold turkey withdrawal of breath.) In Yemen, Paris, New Orleans, Mexico City and Istanbul—shivering under the air hammers and the steam shovels, shrieked junky curses at one another neither of us heard, and The Man leaned out of a passing steam roller and I copped in a bucket of tar. (Note: Istanbul is being torn down and rebuilt, especially shabby junk quarters. Istanbul has more heroin junkies than NYC.) The living and the dead, in sickness or on the nod, hooked or kicked or hooked again, come in on the junk beam and the Connection is eating Chop Suey on Dolores Street, Mexico, D.F., dunking pound cake in the Automat, chased up Exchange Place by a baying pack of People. (Note: People is New Orleans slang for narcotic fuzz.)

The old Chinaman dips river water into a rusty tin can, washes down a yen pox hard and black as a cinder. (Note: Yen pox is theash of smoked opium.)

Well, the fuzz has my spoon and dropper, and I know they are coming in on my frequency led by this blind pigeon known as Willy the Disk. Willy has a round, disk mouth lined with sensitive, erectile black hairs. He is blind from shooting in the eyeball, his nose and palate eaten away sniffing H, his body a mass of scar tissue hard and dry as wood. He can only eat the shit now with that mouth, sometimes sways out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk. He follows my trail all over the city into rooms I move out already, and the fuzz walks in on some newlyweds from Sioux Falls.

"All right, Lee!! Come out from behind that strap-on! We know you," and pull the man's prick off straightaway.

Now Willy is getting hot and you can hear him always out there in darkness (he only functions at night) whimpering, and feel the terrible urgency of that blind, seeking mouth. When they move in for the bust, Willy goes all out of control, and his mouth eats a hole right through the door. If the cops weren't there to restrain him with a stock probe, he would suck the juice right out of every junky he ran down.

I knew, and everybody else knew they had the Disk on me. And if my kid customers ever hit the stand: "He force me to commit all kinda awful sex acts in return for junk" I could kiss the street goodbye.

So we stock up on H, buy a secondhand Studebaker, and start west.

Naked Lunch Copyright 1959 by William S. Burroughs, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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