Junkie – William S. Burroughs GUEST POST REVIEW


  • junkieTitle: Junkie
  • Author: William S. Burroughs
  • ISBN: 0450010627 (ISBN13: 9780450010620)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: Published 1972 (first published January 1st 1953)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Genre/s: Fiction & Literature

From GoodreadsBefore his 1959 breakthrough, Naked Lunch, an unknown William S. Burroughs wrote Junky, his first novel. It is a candid eye-witness account of times and places that are now long gone, an unvarnished field report from the American post-war underground. Unafraid to portray himself in 1953 as a confirmed member of two socially-despised under classes (a narcotics addict and a homosexual), Burroughs was writing as a trained anthropologist when he unapologetically described a way of life – in New York, New Orleans, and Mexico City – that by the 1940’s was already demonized by the artificial anti-drug hysteria of an opportunistic bureaucracy and a cynical, prostrate media.

Junkie is not a book to be enjoyed.  It is a book to be endured.  There are no likable characters.  There are no feel-good moments, there is no happiness.  It is ugly, blunt, emotionless, occasionally vile.  It is car-wreck fascinating and probably one of the most honest accounts of drug addiction ever written.

William S. Burroughs, the godfather of American Beat literature, author of The Naked Lunch,  and seminal influence to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others, wrote the semi-autobiographical Junkie, his first published work, in 1953.  He was ivy-league educated, a kid with financial support from a respectable Midwest family.  But he was also a bored misfit and an outcast who rejected conformity for drugs and extreme experimentation.  “You become a narcotics addict,” he wrote, “because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction.  Junk (i.e. drugs) wins by default.”

Junkie spans the course of a few years and Burroughs describes his existence as an addict, traveling from New York to New Orleans to Texas and finally Mexico City, always with the goal of the next high in mind.  He hangs out with thieves, dealers and other addicts, chasing drugs, fleeing the law.  He describes his acquaintances, members of the junkie community, as “basically obscene beyond any vile act or practice.”   The typical addict “is socialized as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function”.  They feel no remorse because they are completely chemically-controlled.  Once hooked, “life telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to the next”.  It is life on “junk-time”.

There were instances where Burroughs tried to break his habit.  The results were painful and short-term, junk-sickness suffering – “My body was raw, twisting, tumescent, the junk-frozen flesh in agonizing thaw.”  He substituted drugs with alcohol, once drinking for ten days straight, not bathing, not eating, almost dying.  And after two months of being clean, he went back to his needle, found the vein, and described the hit as pure bliss, writing “If God made anything better, he kept it for Himself”.

As Junkie ends, Burroughs’ search for new highs is still in its infancy.  His travels would take him to South America, Europe and North Africa.  It is rumoured that, while living in Morocco, he did not leave his apartment for a year, never washing, never changing his clothes.  He wrote and was an addict.  But he survived and produced, his tortured existence resulting in fame, notoriety as a completely amoral, tragic figure, with the label as one of America’s greatest and most influential writers and a hero to the counterculture for pursuing freedom at all costs.  Was it worth it?  In an interview late in his life, Burroughs was asked if he regretted anything.  He replied curtly – “Everything”.  A junkie’s honesty still intact.

Free audiobook version:


william-burroughsWilliam Seward Burroughs II, (also known by his pen name William Lee; February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author, he is considered to be “one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the 20th century”. His influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.

He was born to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, and nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studied English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the counter-cultural movement of the Beat Generation.

Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a controversy-fraught work that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64). In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”, a reputation he owes to his “lifelong subversion” of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War”, while Norman Mailer declared him “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”.

Burroughs had one child, William Seward Burroughs III (1947-1981), with his second wife Joan Vollmer. Vollmer died in 1951 in Mexico City. Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter in Vollmer’s death, an event that deeply permeated all of his writings. Burroughs died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, after suffering a heart attack in 1997.


In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.



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