WILLIAM BURROUGHS wanted to call his first book Junk. His editor at Ace Books worried that simple readers might mistake the book for trash. The editor himself was not at all sure how to take it. It was an account of Burroughs's life as a heroin addict - sensational stuff. But the account was so shamelessly matter-of-fact, so cool and reprobate, the editor felt obliged to subtitle it, "Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict." As if this were not disclaimer enough, he asterisked all the most brazen paragraphs, foot-noting disapproval. He took out lots of dirty words, excised incidents he considered too impious or tiresome for his paperback public, changed the title of the book to Junkie. The book finally appeared-back-to-back (two novels for 35 cents) with Narcotics Agent, by Maurice Heilbrandt. Burroughs - no wonder! - used a pen name, William Lee. It was 1953.
Penguin Books has now published the first unexpurgated version of Burroughs's book, now called (now spelled ) Junky. The passages which have been restored were very much worth restoring. The scissor-job done to the 1953 edition had compromised the fidelity of the language to the unique jive of the junk-world Burroughs lived in. Worse yet, the deletions tripped up the pacing of this very carefully paced book.
For all the shock and acclaim and disappointment his many other novels have occasioned, Burroughs remains for most readers the author of Naked Lunch. Perhaps the fuss of a new edition of Junky will encourage readers who have found his more recent work inaccessible to return to Burroughs. It was a simpler, soberer Burroughs who wrote Junky, eight years before the seizure of genius he dissipated in Naked Lunch. Candid and lucid, yet Junky seemed the very antithesis of literature in 1953.
There had been nothing like it. The detective novels of Dashiell Hammett had traded on the same stree-wise dialogue and point-blank prose, the same journalistic cool. But Hammett told stories, mystery stories; episodic as it seemed, a novel like The Glass Key had a beginning, a middle, and a surprise ending. Junky begins with the narrator's first encounter with heroin and proceeds from fix to fix, from pickpocketing a drunk for the next fix, to faking a prescription for the next fix, a getting caught, getting jailed, suffering withdrawal during police interrogation, contriving release on bail, borrowing money for a quick fix and a bus-ticket out-of-state . . . The book goes on and on according to "junk-time." No words are spent on memory, love, the subtleties of motivation, the revelations of manners. In the preface Burroughs suggests, "Perhaps all pleasure is relief." Then he recounts his story as if this were the truth, the whole truth, and all other beliefs bunk.
In the last paragraph of the book, as the narrator embarks on a search for yage, a drug used by the Indians of the Amazon, Burroughs is as remorseless as ever in his unwillingness to justify his behavior to the reader, the critics, the tastemakers of morality. Life is unjust; no matter what you believe, death will dismiss you.
"Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix."
Baudelaire had a point: from his day on he expected the artist to be either a dandy or a criminal. No doubt, there are all kinds of artists, but many of the best contemporary writers are like Nabokov, "dandies," like Burroughs, "criminals." The dandies seem to trust that art has prestige enough to vindicate their often sorry lives. The criminals protest that they're serving a bum rap, condemned to death in proceedings as criminal as anything they've done themselves. Junky is one of the most compelling and brillant challenges any comptemporary writer has raised against the absurd jurisdiction of death.