William Burroughs




book review


William Burroughs

THE PUBLISHER of Burroughs's first book Junky declined Queer on the grounds that he would go to jail for issuing such a blasphemous tome. A novel dealing quite explicitly (ie it was mentioned at all) with homosexuality was hardly a safe bet in the early '50s. Queer is written and set in Mexico City of that era (with which Burroughs enjoyed an easy affinity – "slum areas which compared favourably with anything in Asia for sheer filth and poverty ... fabulous whorehouses ... every conceivable diversion") and is published now for the first time.

Queer is a love story. In Burroughs's terms, for 'love' substitute 'desire'. A consuming desire. Even a desire to consume. The central character Lee contemplates his quarry, Allerton, and finds a yearning to move from physical into psychical contact, wanting to climb right into the other being's mind.

Junky had determined to tell the tale of an addict's experience as simply as possible. In Queer Lee has gone from drug addict to orgasm addict. The craving to score, now in the sexual sense, finds a symbol with the willing although unenthusiastic Allerton, whom Lee eventually pays to accompany him on a trip to South America in search of the Yage (a plant said to grow at the headwaters of the Amazon and contain a chemical capable of inducing increased telepathic sensitivity).

On the mundane level of mere words on a page Queer is not a good book. It doesn't draw in, excite, stimulate or even taunt the reader. Its plot is vacuous and its characters constructed hastily. The descriptions of the habitués of Mexico City's seemingly numerous queer haunts are often poorly imitative of Hemingway (a writer whom Burroughs has since frequently revealed his admiration of). Interestingly, these same scenes are sometimes blasted from the prosaic with shots of heightened vividness, pre-emptive of the wild imagery which have loaded Burroughs's later works.

But as a text to illuminate the author's life, Queer has a greater resonance. Writing in the contemporary introduction, Burroughs reveals a motivation to write stemming from infamous occasion when he accidentally shot his wife, Joan. Queer takes place in the same place and same time. "While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer".

The oft alluded to portents which teemed through that fateful day are present in this story and hover unseen but sensed around Lee. Like "a dead hand waiting to slip over his as a glove" says Burroughs. Queer has an eerie coldness more apparent and relevant to the writer than the reader.

The value of Queer, therefore, is not as a literary event but as a previously missing piece in the multi-dimensional jigsaw of William Burroughs himself.

For addicts only.


© mick sinclair

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