The letters in this book- written mostly to Allen Ginsberg with some to other notable recipients like Jack Kerouac and Brion Gysin scattered among them- are amongst some of the most entertaining and well written by any writer that I’ve come across.
They cover a key period in Burroughs’s life, commencing in the mid 40s when he was trying to make a go of being a family man and a farmer. Odd to think of this latter day scourge of authority and conservatism worrying about how much his carrot and cotton crops will fetch, but he did all the same. Then comes the move to Mexico, the fatal ‘William Tell routine’ gone wrong when he shot his wife Joan, and the years of addiction and wandering, first through South America, and then to the Continent and North Africa. All of this is fully documented here, at length and in fascinating detail.
If you want to learn more about what made Burroughs the man and the writer he was, and how his later world view developed, I think a lot of the answers are in these letters. Certainly without the letters I don’t think he could have been the writer he was. In fact on a very real level I don’t think he would have progressed as a writer at all without these letters as the initial spur to get his thoughts out and onto the page. They were his lifeline- at one stage he comments on how much he needs an audience, and for a long time Ginsberg and Kerouac fulfilled this role- at a time when he was effectively serving his writing apprenticeship, looking for things to write and still without an audience. The letters effectively kept him going and gave him a chance to develop. Also, we see his world view change and mature and by the end of this book we’ve seen him come to terms with his status as an outsider.
From would-be farmer worrying about how much his crops will yield, to a fully-fledged avant-garde artist in 15 years is pretty good going, Along the way there’s a lot of hardship, a lot of moaning about his lot and above all some genuinely funny passages. You can gain a lot from reading these letters in their own right, and if you’ve always been left cold by Burroughs or put off him, they will help you understand a lot more about why he wrote as he did and where his particular sardonic take on the world came from.
In a similar vein, the William Burroughs ‘reader’ called Word Virus is well worth a look.
In effect, this is Burroughs for slackers and lazy readers like me. I have had my copy for a fair while now, and I still regularly dip into it. While I think he’s a great writer, I have to admit that most of his work after Naked Lunch is a bit of a trial to get through. For example, whole novels written via the cut-up method are just too much for me to wade through, I’m afraid, even though I will readily admit that it can be a really exciting and often illuminating way of writing.
This is why this anthology is so valuable, in that it gives you tasters of everything of note he ever published. There is some stunning work in here, including samples of the very readable 1950s letters mentioned above, excerpts from early works like Junky and Queer, and also excerpts from Naked Lunch. There are also some stand alone gems collected in the book, like the chilling “Last Words” and also “Remembering Jack Kerouac”, a heartfelt and wise memoir of his friend and colleague, which manages to reveal a great deal about Burroughs himself, as well as his whole psychological approach to writing.
An extra bonus the extended biographical notes that link each section. These not only explain a lot of the work and put it into context, but they also fill you in on the key points of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary writing life.
This is perhaps all the Burroughs you will ever need, at least until you pluck up courage to get to grips with the individual texts in their entirety.