by Perry Meisel
Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs. Edited and with an introduction by James Grauerholz. 273 pp. New York: Grove Press. $25.
With his canes, suits and absurd fedoras, William S. Burroughs was the dandy manqué who invented geek chic and made modernism available to the hippie masses. The last of the major Beats, Burroughs succumbed to heart failure in 1997 at 83. Though he is still best known for Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs's later experiments in narrative technique earned him a place in classrooms. His aura earned him vast hosts of fans and the role of high priest and soothsayer that he always believed was his birthright.
Born in St. Louis in 1914, Burroughs was the grandson of the man who invented the adding machine. The Burroughs Corporation ultimately merged with the Sperry Corporation to create Unisys, although Burroughs himself failed to profit from the sale (his family had sold its stock in the company many years before). After graduating from Harvard, Burroughs eventually moved to New York and settled, with his parents' financial support, into the world of his real education, the world of boys, heroin and small-time grifters. The definitive hipster was sustained by his privileged background. As a writer, he was dependent on the High Moderns, particularly T. S. Eliot, without whose example he could not have purchased his own curious originality. The contradictions never bothered Burroughs; his arrogance thrived on them. In 1983, after sojourns in New York, London, Paris and Tangier, Burroughs retired to the university town of Lawrence, Kan., a sign, perhaps, of mellowing, even though his fun included frequent target practice with handguns and rifles. His hobbies were also star-crossed: he had killed his wife, Joan, with a pistol during a failed William Tell experiment in Mexico in 1951.
Now that Burroughs's ''final journals'' have been published, edited by his companion and literary executor, James Grauerholz, a comprehensive sense of the man and his achievement, for better and for worse, is at last available. Grauerholz's introduction and notes are a fine mixture of fact and feeling, and make Last Words a synthetic whole. Burroughs published only one full-scale journal previously, The Retreat Diaries (1976), the record of two weeks of Buddhist meditation, but that is a deliberate performance compared with this one. Moreover, ''final journals'' is something of a misnomer, since, as Grauerholz notes in his introduction, Burroughs had always used index cards for jotting down thoughts and dreams. He began composing a formal diary only in the last years of his life, after his ability to use both cards and his typewriter had diminished with the onset of physical difficulties and Grauerholz and other friends had made him a present of some bound blank notebooks. Burroughs eventually filled eight such volumes.
Burroughs's characteristic froideur has given way to a love of cats, if nothing else, in the face of death. At 83, he has become ''a kindly ruin,'' as one young pilgrim to the house in Lawrence describes him. With ''the stage . . . darker,'' a Shakespearean Burroughs says, he takes his inspiration for dying from his recently deceased friends, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Their last words on the occasions of their own imminent deaths form a kind of litany. ''I thought I would be terrified,'' Ginsberg says to Burroughs; ''instead I am exhilarated.'' Leary, who videotaped his own demise, says, ''Why not?''
But unlike many literary diaries, Last Words is rarely personal, even though the journals are an exploration in depth, and in sum, of Burroughs's personality and creative preoccupations. We learn very little that is new about the Beats or about Burroughs's habits in these last years of his life. Instead, we witness the rich repetition, with variations, of a string of half-conscious fancies, scenarios and literary allusions. The elements should be familiar enough to any reader of Burroughs: drugs, federal agents, international conspiracies, guns, murder, the Mafia, the Old West, spaceships, aliens and the witness protection program. The literary preoccupations, however, are surprising because they juxtapose appreciations of writers as different, or as seemingly different, as Joseph Conrad and Mario Puzo. Here is the text in action:
No one is perfect.No, but by the flaws in the picture the truth will emerge.Any[way] – last night, vague dream I was somewhere, couldn't stay long – I packed laundry sack with drawstring . . . .What else?The lake, a Moroccan, Jewish, German slum.So I must let everything all the way in, a vast wind to blow everything that doesn't belong away.(I am transparent.)
The frequent bubbling-up of lines from ''The Waste Land'' recalls the surest source of Burroughs's inspiration as an artist, and the inevitable site to which he returns in the shadow of death:
I feel chilly and grown old.I feel like Tiresias,"[a] fortnight dead, and the wavespick his bones in whispers"– the old, old words.
The sharp jump-cutting, short sentence to short sentence, quotation to quotation, creates the same effect that Burroughs creates in his novels. The journals are built out of such ''fragments,'' as Burroughs calls them, or, to use his old word for such modular writing, ''cut-ups.'' All literary work, Burroughs maintains, is really the rearrangement of bits and pieces of writing. The cut-up method shows just how easy it is to produce and manipulate literary response: by shifting the context in which something appears and altering the chains of association that give it meaning.
But Last Words is more than a primer in Burroughs's technique. It also presents fresh clues to the larger design of his imagination, and a means of gaining a renewed perspective on his work. When Burroughs confesses that he has become addicted to writing in his new notebooks, the metaphor is decisive. It is the key to a pattern that brings to light a parallel between writing and junk, and between writing and crime, especially murder. Nor is it because of the existential bravado that joins the writer and the punk. Far from it. Writing, drugs and murder come from the same shop because they are all forms of discipline. ''The gunfight,'' Burroughs writes, ''was a spiritual exercise.'' Being addicted to junk is both a spiritual exercise and a management concern, an enterprise that, like writing, requires organization and discipline. Each is a ''métier,'' a ''profession.'' The focus and scrupulosity of the addict, the gunslinger and the hit man render all of them disciples of form. The addict lays out his or her kit the way the crew lays out equipment in Conrad's romances of the sea. No wonder Burroughs's prose is excessive and minimalist at the same time. The simple presentation of what is weird or disgusting is the perfect instrument for showing the form in what is presumably formless.
It is Burroughs's priceless fascination with Mario Puzo's Last Don and Puzo's estimation of criminality that brings everything together. Burroughs chuckles as Don Clericuzio indulges his ''bloody mouth'' hit-man grandson until, finally, he has had enough: ''Bad form,'' as Burroughs describes the Don's attitude toward murder, ''not to like it as a job well done – but when it comes to rutting around in it like a dog rolls in carrion, The Family draws a strict line.'' Then, a few pages later: ''A hit man has to be cool. It's just a job.'' The lesson is clear. Like the equipoise of violence and form – of violence as form – in Burroughs's own work, the hit man is obliged to be a perfect balance of passion and order. Like the writer, he or she is, like Conrad's captains, the epitome of the dedicated professional.
Burroughs, however, never fully heeded his own advice. The ideas are compelling, but their execution is lazy and shallow. Without enough drugs in his reader's system, Burroughs's prose falls flat on its face. The reader must supply the labor – and the good will – required to bring his writing to the level of fullness to which it aspires. This is too much to demand in the way of collaboration. Like geek chic, Burroughs is too hard to read. There was a time when men really did wear hats.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, February 13, 2000