QUEER. By William S. Burroughs. Viking. 134 pp. $14.95.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS' newly published early novel is by no means his best, but it will catch a lot of people off guard. Queer puts a human face on a mysterious author whose work has made him seem to be the most heartless tough guy in serious American fiction. It is well-known that Burroughs conceived Naked Lunch and several subsequent novels as warnings against the dangers of drug addiction. His method was to record withdrawal hallucinations as they had never been written down before, to force the reader to experience the torments of the strung-out addict. But although the books' Ernst-like frescos are jolting in their ruthlessness and nihilistic hilarity, compassion appears to have no part in them.
Some of the most unnerving passages of Burroughs' novels draw their power from insect imagery, and there has always seemed to be something insect-like in the cold frenzy with which he unleashes the high-speed, super-corrosive visions that make his most successful writing so brutalizing. Anyone who reads it must wonder about the less public thoughts of a creative intelligence so harsh that a single drop of sentimentality would pollute and destroy it. Queer fills in some of the blanks. Chronologically it is Burroughs' second novel, written in 1952 following Junky. The circumstances surrounding its genesis are shocking. Burroughs attempts to describe them in an astonishing preface:
"When I started to write this (preface), I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer's block like a strait jacket: 'I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can't read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. -- Painful to an extent I feel it difficult to read, let alone write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge. The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951."
He does not give any further information about the shooting in this introduction, but he apparently killed Joan accidentally during some drunken William Tell-style gunplay.
One is not used to tears from Burroughs, and it is difficult to convey the poignancy his preface to Queer achieves when read with an awareness of his other work. "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death," he writes, "and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing . . . (T)he death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."
Burroughs actually does seem to believe that some "invader" possessed him at the time of the shooting and forced him helplessly to kill Joan. This fact, considered in light of Burroughs' description of Queer as a work "motivated and formed" by the murder, will set off alarms in readers with a psychobiographical turn of mind. Queer is a purely homosexual work, an account of the narrator's intense infatuation with a young man named Eugene Allerton during a period of expatriate life in Mexico City. Was the "Ugly Spirit" an irresistible urge to blast away the heterosexual entrapments that kept him from experiencing a form of love which drew him much more powerfully?
If so, it was a double disaster. The account Burroughs gives in Queer of his passion for Allerton is a chronicle of humiliation, almost unrelievedly harrowing. Like its predecessor, Junky, Queer recounts the adventures of a heroin addict named William Lee (Junky was originally published under that name), but there are so many correspondences between Lee's experiences and those of Burroughs himself that the two books can be seen as disguised confessional autobiography in the manner of C,eline and Henry Miller. Junky tells of Lee's first experiences with heroin and follows his descent into the junk subculture as it was in the '40s. At its conclusion, he is in trouble with the law in New Orleans and has escaped to Mexico City, where he has taken his part in a fluid society of addicts and others who prefer living outside of conventional society.
ALTHOUGH the narrative of Queer picks up roughly where Junky left off, Burroughs shifts gears abruptly. He tries to distance himself somewhat from the painful subject matter by switching from the first to the third person, but the style doesn't really suit him and threatens to go mushy. Furthermore, the narrator is no tough guy. The confident harshness of the earlier book disappears as Lee becomes increasingly infatuated with Allerton, and a palpable self-disgust takes its place. When Lee first sees Allerton walking down Coahuila in Mexico City with a group of young men, Burroughs emphasizes the encounter with one of the longest character descriptions he has written. When they meet, Lee's nervousness makes the young man uneasy. Finally, through fast talk and crazy tall- tale telling, Lee wins him over, concealing his sexual intentions.
Lee eventually declares himself, gets Allerton drunk and takes him to bed. The predictable reaction takes place: the primarily straight Allerton is disgusted, but also realizes that he has the upper hand. He starts avoiding Lee, torturing him by traveling around town with a woman friend and making a quick exit whenever Lee appearn the scene. Lee tries to compensate by stepping up the attention-getting chatter and by making large gifts of money, further repelling Allerton. Finally he is driven to levels of despair that draw from Burroughs a kind of prose found nowhere else in his work: "(Lee's) throat began to ache, moisture hit his eyes, and he fell across the bed, sobbing convulsively. He pulled his knees up and covered his face with his hands, the fists clenched. Toward morning he turned on his back and stretched out. The sobs stopped, and his face relaxed in the morning light."
Lee manages to persuade Allerton to undertake a joint trip to South America in search of the drug, yage. He agrees to keep his sexual demands to a minimum, and Allerton tolerates him. But finally Allerton leaves, and when Lee is reunited with him in the book's final pages, it is only in the context of a bleak, self-detesting dream.
Sometimes a more familiar Burroughs Naked Lunch voice flashes through this pained narrative, especialy in those sections where Lee is spinning stories to ingratiate himself with Allerton. Some of these have the ironical ferocity of Naked Lunch:
"Poor Bobo came to a sticky end. He was riding in the Duc de Ventre's Hispano Suiza when his falling piles blew out of the car and wrapped around the rear wheel. He was completely gutted, leaving an empty shell sitting there on the giraffe-skin upholstery. Even the eyes and brain went, with a horrible shlupping sound. The Duc says he will carry that ghastly shlup with him to his mausoleum . . ."
There are other inclusions from outside: several passages from Junky, among them the description of Lola's Bar in Mexico City, reappear here verbatim.
Queer is a weak novel, with its stylistic careening and uneasy, confessional tone; it is certainly not the proper entry point into Burroughs' work. But readers who have lived for a while with his other books, particularly those written in the late '50s and early '60s, will find it fascinating and revealing. The preface contains some of the most affecting writing Burroughs has published in many years. Together they form an unprecedented personal revelation from one of the most controversial and influential writers of the past decades.