Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Review: Call Me Burroughs by Barry Miles

It feels like I’ve read too many Burroughs bios lately. I just checked the shelf, and there are a dozen and a half of them, and that wasn’t something I planned. I’m not writing a dissertation or making this my life’s work. I think it was because Road to Interzone came out and then went out of print so quickly, I now hoard books about Burroughs. I wasn’t in the mood to read another bio, especially a 600-page one, so this book sat for a minute before I got into it, but I’m glad I did.

Burroughs is a strange nut, because the ratio of people who are fans to people who have actually read his work is staggeringly high. As someone who writes strange, experimental, nonlinear fiction, it’s something that’s always perplexed me, something that I’ve studied, as I’ve tried to find a way to get people interested in my own books.  Burroughs himself is a brand. People are more interested in his life than his work. The work is important, but the myth behind what he did with his life, both for good and for bad, is what makes him persist in our culture.  I’ve met many, many people who told me some variation of “I didn’t understand a single word of Naked Lunch, but I’m a huge fan.”  So the life of this guy is the gimmick: the addiction, the shooting of his wife, the moving to strange foreign countries, and the persona is what makes people interested in Burroughs.

This means that biographies of the man are paramount. And the last solid bio of the man was Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw, which was published in 1988 and which Burroughs hated.  (Side note: something I didn’t know until recently, because I’m an idiot or maybe because I read his book pre-wikipedia, is that Ted Morgan is a pen name used by Comte St. Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont.  It’s an anagram for “de Gramont” and he changed his name to this when he became a US citizen.)  There have been plenty of other biographies covering parts or pieces of his life, but not a solid end-to-end book since his death, at least that I’ve read.  (I’m sure there are – there are so damn many books about him.)

There’s not much for me to say about Miles’ work in the bio, except to say he’s fairly thorough, and the book doesn’t skip over much. There are bits where I found his structure confusing.  Like there’s one bit where he mentions Cronenberg visiting, finishing a final script of the movie in 1989, and then taking six years to finalize the script.  At first read, I thought “wait, that movie came out in 1991 – he’s saying the script was finalized in like 1995?” But really, after I read the paragraph nine times, I realized he meant he visited around 1983, labored on the script for six years, and completed it in 1989.  There was nothing technically or grammatically wrong with how he wrote the paragraph; it was just backwards and upside-down to me.  This happened in a few places; otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth read.

I’m trying to think of any new ground covered in this book, and there’s not much, but maybe a few minor points.  I don’t remember reading elsewhere that Burroughs was a bottom, which he mentions several times. His methadone treatment late in life might be news to some. He paints the picture of Burroughs having money issues late in life – not issues per se, as much as having worries, and not sitting on a giant pile of cash as some may expect from a famous writer.

Overall, I don’t have too much to say about the book.  It’s worth a read if you’re into him, but I’m a bit Burroughs-ed out at this point.  I’m also down on a new wave of Burroughs fans that haven’t cracked open any of his books outside of Junky and Interzone, and who don’t know the joy of when a book like The Soft Machine finally clicks and starts firing on all cylinders.  This is a very well-done history, but I’d urge readers not to get too mired into the history and get back to the actual work.