William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)
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Read By William S. Burroughs
Written By William S. Burroughs
Book Published In 1953
Running Time Approx. 3 Hours
Read By William S. Burroughs
Junky (alternately titled Junkie) is a 1953 semi-autobiographical novel by William S. Burroughs. It was his first published novel and has come to be considered a seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s. Burroughs' working title was Junk.
The novel was considered unpublishable more than it was controversial. Burroughs began it largely at the request and insistence of Allen Ginsberg, who was impressed by Burroughs’s letter-writing skill. Burroughs took up the task with little enthusiasm. However, partly because he saw that becoming a publishable writer was possible (his friend Jack Kerouac had published his first novel The Town and the City in 1950), he began to compile his experiences as an addict, ‘lush roller’ and small-time Greenwich Village heroin pusher.
Burroughs's work would not have been published but for Allen Ginsberg’s drive and determination. Apart from his own artistic output, Ginsberg can justly be remembered as a great teacher of writing. Throughout his life, he shepherded many artistic works to fruition. Junkie was probably the first. Besides encouraging Burroughs to write, he worked as editor and agent for the manuscript while the manuscript was written in Mexico City during Burroughs’ forced flight from pending drug charges in New Orleans. The companion piece to Junky, Queer, was written at the same time and parts of Queer were designed to be included in Junkie, since the first manuscript was dismissed as poorly written and lacking in interest and insight. After many rejection letters, Burroughs stopped writing.
Ginsberg miraculously found a publisher in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey. He had admitted himself to a Hoboken hospital after getting kicked out of Columbia University. A. A. Wyn, who owned Ace Books, was pressured to consider the work upon the insistence of his nephew, Carl Solomon, who had been hospitalized in the same facility as Ginsberg. With this news, Ginsberg forced Burroughs to revisit the text. Ginsberg soothed Burroughs's indignation at the necessary edits, and was able to finally place the novel with the New York publishing house.
Junky is the kind of novel that you cannot read until you abandon all pretenses. Forget for a moment that this was Burroughs' first book, put aside the fact that he was himself a junky, and put your personal opinions of drug use and abuse, as well as Burroughs himself, on hold. The attempt made by Junky as a piece of art is to honestly and fairly put forward an in-depth look at a side of American life that was virtually overlooked until its publication. The novel delves very deeply into a world that, though many would rather ignore it all together, has gotten progressively worse to this day.
Junky offers a detailed account of a drug addict's entrance into the seedy underworld, his daily search for a fix, the shady characters he must rely on, and the suffering he experiences while trying to fix himself. The purpose is to fully immerse the reader in the world of a man engulfed in addiction.
The hero is actually an intelligent man, who immediately recognizes the risk taken in his experiments with narcotics. He also realizes, although a little too late, the fact that he has become an addict himself, and now needs the drug for basic survival. He is also rational. He recognizes his dismal circumstances, but also recognizes his guilt in the matter, and in no way tries to gain sympathy from the reader. The hero is aware of what he has done to himself, and does nothing to deny his responsibility.
Junky in no way glamorizes drug use; on the contrary, in the sections that describe heroin as appealing, Burroughs is showing the immeasurable control the drug has quietly acquired over the user, distorting the addict's perception of what is happening to him.
Junky pulls the reader into a dark underworld of society and depicts a man's struggle to regain his life, or what's left of it after the plague of addiction is eliminated. Burroughs holds nothing back. He uses a method of detailing the more shocking parts of the hero's experiences with a calm and almost casual frankness. This slowly makes them seem less disturbing, and introduces the reader more and more to the addicts point of view. Burroughs even attempts to alter the reader's point of view, subtly bringing the reader closer to the mind of the junky, and eventually creating an unexpected affection for a seemingly unlovable character, who appears to have very little about him that is redeeming. You begin to care for this lost, pathetic man, as you watch him attempt cure after cure, method after method, finally having to flee the country to avoid prosecution. The reader can do nothing but look on, as each good intention crumbles, making the hero more and more incapable of escaping the grip of the addiction.
Burroughs states many times the degree of influence heroin has over the addict, illustrating how all other activities become less like life and more like a limbo of nothingness between scores. The junky's life is consumed. His days become more and more about scoring, leaving less and less room for anything else. By the time the hero becomes aware of having a problem, it is too late, he has become a slave to the drug. He doesn't need the heroin to simply get high; he needs the heroin because he cannot survive without it. Burroughs states the difference between other drugs, which are about the high they induce, and heroin: "Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life."
There are no hidden intentions in Junky. It does not aspire to create a greater sympathy for drug addicts, nor does it make any gallant attempts at scaring away potential users. Junky has no agenda, good or bad, for its influence in the world. It simply lays out the facts, leaving them for the reader to do what they want with them. The novel is a clear, concise, and direct journey into the mind and world of a man diseased, told in brutally honest narration, without a hint of shame or pity.
This is, in my opinion, a worthy piece of literature to invest the time into reading, not only for a Burroughs fan, but for any reader who enjoys thought-provoking subject-matter and stories containing complex and intriguing characters. Basically, anyone who appreciates well-written fiction has the ability to appreciate the dark, subtle wit and stark, desperate tone of Junky, as long as they read it with an open mind. It is a chronicle, a picture, a record of a dark way of life. And as that, it succeeds.