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Burroughs is a Virus


Last weekend (Saturday, 20 April 2024), I had the pleasure of attending the 12th annual Rainbow Book Fair at the LGBT Community Center in New York City. The event was fabulous, and a much-needed reminder of how many talented and intelligent people there are, working indefatigably through intelligence, imagination, and grit to make the world a little better. I´m so grateful I got to go, and the timing of this event could not have been better.*


*(Pro tip: whenever you feel down or discouraged by the state of the world, go to a bookfair or a independent bookstore or hear a writer read their work.)


One of the people I met at RBF was Tom Cardamone, who noted the Pigface tee-shirt I was wearing. An enthusiastic author and editor, our chat led me to discover one of the intriguing books on display at his table: Fever Spores (Rebel Satori Press), a series of writings on infamous Beat writer William S. Burroughs that Cardamone edited with Brian Alessandro.




Sometimes I joke that the Beats got introduced to me in the womb, as the legacy of their work and the presence of many of their key figures seemed to be everywhere, especially during my teens and into my mid-twenties. Where I grew up in California was equidistant between Jack Kerouac´s Big Sur (also the setting of his 1962 novel of the same name) and the Six Gallery, where poet Allen Ginsberg first performed "Howl" in 1955. My friends and I browsed Lawrence Ferlighetti´s City Lights bookstore in San Francisco frequently, and one of my teachers in high school knew poet Gary Snyder personally. Like many other teenage boys, reading On the Road for the first time felt like an important event; not only because that book galvanized my interest in jazz music, Buddhism, and learning about the essentials of spontaneous prose, but my friends and I sought to reproduce the cross-country road trips of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise as we all began our own quest for "IT". When I moved to New York at 18, I heard Ginsberg read at the Poetry Project, and sometimes would see the "Dharma Lion" in our shared neighborhood of the East Village when I lived on St Marks Place.


Fast forward twenty-plus years, and I am living abroad (perhaps subconsciously recreating the expatriation and restless wandering that characterizes so many of the Beat writers?). I author and direct an experimental performance project inspired by the writings of Kerouac, particularly The Dharma Bums. In preparation to develop the show, I do a lot of research about all of the Beats, but do a "deep dive" of research into all of Kerouac´s writings, as well as some by Ginsberg, Syder, and a bit of Burroughs.


Reading Kerouac at 45 is a notably different experience than reading him at 15. While some of his prose continues to leap off the page for me, with a kind of inspired explosion of raw unedited feeling (On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Tristessa, Big Sur), other pieces of the "father of the Beat Generation" don´t seem to have aged well (Satori in Paris, The Subterraneans, Pic). His uneven literary output seems to mirror the conflicts within his character: a Catholic who aimed to become a nascent Buddhist, a hyper-masculine man trying to reconcile his own bisexuality, his out of control alcoholism. Especially in his later years, his written pages are filled with pain. And yet, the persona and mystique of Kerouac and the Beats continues to influence artists generation after generation. Aside from whatever innovations Jack may have introduced to American prose nearly 70 years ago with his breakthrough novel, his mythology remains intact, and in some ways a more lasting influence than his actual work.




Which brings me back to Burroughs. Most famous for his experimental 1959 novel Naked Lunch, Bill´s long cultural legacy seems at least as pervasive and influential as Jack´s. Artists ranging from The Doors to Throbbing Gristle and Kurt Cobain all cited Burroughs as an influence, and one can see his influence in the work of Joy Division, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, and many more. In addition to his "cut-up" approach to writing (inspired by the work of his close friend and artist Brion Gysin), Burroughs also made multiple audio recordings, created a number of visual art pieces (most notably his "shotgun art" series), and even had a cameo in Gus Van Sant´s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy.


And yet, despite his homosexuality being both well documented in his personal life as well as appearing throughout many of his novels (particularlyJunkie, Queer, and The Wild Boys), Burroughs is rarely thought of as a queer writer, and there has been little discussion about the relationship between his identity, his sexual activities, and his art. Why is this? Fever Spores aims to make a substantive beginning in answering that question, and for the most part succeeds.


I say "for the most part" because Alessandro & Cardamone´s book will probably leave readers with more questions than answers, which feels both appropriate given the complexities and contradictions of Burroughs as both a person and an artist but might frustrate someone seeking some sort of coherent or definitive answer. The contributing writers to Fever Spores are a delightfully combustible potpourii of viewpoints, each approaching the topic in different ways and using different literary forms: there are scholarly essays on key texts from his bibliography, as well as a number of interviews, and even a short story or some poetry.


Like me and reading everything I could by Kerouac, many of the contributors confess to finding Burroughs´ literary work to be uneven, while simultaneously finding his work vital, impactful and important. Writer Paul Russel´s essay on re-reading The Wild Boys numerous times, as well as his experience teaching it within a university classroom, is particularly stimulating, highlighting the challenges and elusive worldview behind Burroughs´ work. Trebor Healey´s take on WSB´s Queer, originally written in the early 1950s and set in Mexico City, is a fascinating report comparing/contrasting the subject of his book with the present, particularly as it comes to (gay) sex, scoring drugs, and being a foreigner. Also, the discussion of Burroughs´ visual art by Edmund White is particularly rich and engaging.


The interviews with those who met with or knew Burroughs personally are hit or miss. The interview with Fran Liebowitz is hilarious, and also perhaps provides some context for why Burroughs was more reserved about his personal life than queer writers working today. The talks with playwright Tony Kushner and filmmaker David Cronenberg are fascinating; however, the ones with Samuel R. Delaney, Legs McNeil, and Debbie Harry left me wanting a lot more.


Many contributors to Fever Spores also admit at least some discomfort over WSB the person, and how this influences their relationship to his work. While there are frequent depictions of gay male homosexuality in his writing, many note that it is frequently homophobic, as well. Perhaps further complicating this is the fact that his surreal narratives frequently center on addicts hoping to score. Like its author, the central characters in his books are anti-establishment, paranoid, furtive; they are more invested in finding a way to liberate themselves from Control or to destroy all of civilization, rather than pursue anything related to "gay rights". Despite being alive pre- and post-Stonewall, Burroughs is silent about his personal life outside of his novels.


Plus, let´s face it: Burroughs´ personal life is rather dark. In addition to his decades-long drug use, there is the fact that he shot his (second) wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a game of William Tell that ended in disaster. And while Burroughs says that this horrible event unleashed the "Ugly Spirit" that made him into a writer, this was not the first time death and violence were close to the author (I´m thinking of the murder of David Kammerer by fellow Beat, Lucien Carr, who went to Burroughs´apartment afterwards).


Murder, heavy drugs, homophobia. Perhaps these are the reasons why some wish Burroughs would remain as far away from the LGBTQ community as possible, and that books such as Queer or The Wild Boys should never be mentioned as part of a gay canon of literature. But others believe that, like Jean Genet or Arthur Rimbaud, it is those very transgressive qualities in both his work and his biography that make Burroughs extremely queer, and worthy of another read. Nihilistic, non-conforming, this complicated artist is without question someone who consistently defied convention in his writing, and whose life resists continues to resist easy categorization or even acceptance.


And perhaps that is what makes Burroughs such an important figure, and why Fever Spores reads so powerfully in 2024. The author of Naked Lunch never needed anyone´s acceptance, and never asked for anyone´s permission to exist; instead of following the trends of his time, either as a writer or as a queer man, Burroughs seemed to remain focused on whatever interested him, and everyone else be damned. Maybe we could all use a bit more of that punk rock spirit, that counterculture in our modern era of increased corporatization and digitization of society, art, and sexuality. Maybe we need to cut it all up, and seek out new ways of seeing.



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