"Puppy," William S. Burroughs says, a dry sound of distaste he blows out of his nose like a stray nostril hair. "He's all over you. Go away, puppy. Nnnnnnnn . . ."
Burroughs lifts horrified hands on thin gray wrists. The puppy, a four-month-old Jack Russell terrier named Nan, clambers down from Burroughs' calf and wanders off.
"I'm not a dog man," says the man who became famous in 1959 when he published "Naked Lunch" after an obscenity trial which set standards for the '60s to come. The book became a demimonde bible. He has written 13 other books, which also have been guided tours to the apocalypse. His first was a partial autobiography in 1953. It was entitled "Junkie," because that's what he'd been for years when he wrote it. As well as one of the Beat Generation's founding members -- is there any other kind of member of literary movements?
Anyway, at 67, shrinking back in thin-lipped loathing Burroughs explains: "I'm not a dog man. I like cats, but I'm not a dog man."
He is asked if he owns any cats -- with the chronically laconic Burroughs, you have to take any conversational opening you can get.
"Oh, no. I live in New York City. You need to be in the country to have cats. There's no space or fresh air for them where I live, and besides, I don't want the responsibility."
The puppy's toenails click across the huge, shining floors of this apartment on 16th Street. It's an expensive apartment with almost no furniture in it except for a couple of dingy couches. Burroughs is sitting on one of them.
He straightens his necktie. He picks at his trouser legs. He realigns an empty package of Vantage cigarettes on a little table smeared with ashes. He has come to Washington to give a standing-room-only reading the night before at the 9:30 Club, a punk-rock bastion, and to autograph copies of his new novel, "Cities of the Red Night," at the Book Annex in Georgetown. The new novel repeats with ritual and monotonous fervor the motifs of the old ones as they describe with wistful eagerness the corruption and monstrous decay of the universe: madness, drug addition, hanging, certain homosexual acts, riot and odd smells in the tropics, drug-addicted homosexuals, mad hangmen in the tropics, all of it overlaid with either a peculiar nostalgia or a dry humor best expressed by his nasal intonation. "Every writer has his themes," he says with the tired wariness that greets any attempt to arrive at a definition of him or his work. "I have my themes and motifs like Graham Greene and his bad Catholics."
Nan the puppy has returned to interrupt him, however, and he pulls away again. "Nice doggy, nice doggy," he says. "Go to your basket. Basket! Basket!"
It is suggested that Burroughs actually yearns for the apocalypse he describes over and over again. The way he describes it, it has a certain wasted lyricism to it, as in the following, from the new novel: ". . . red night sky over a desert city . . . clusters of violet light raining down on sandstone steps and bursting with a musky smell of ozone . . . strange words in his throat, a taste of blood and metal . . . a white ship sailing across a gleaming empty sky dusted with stars . . . singing fish in a ruined garden . . . a strange pistol in his hand that shoots blue sparks . . . beautiful diseased faces in red light, all looking at something he cannot see . . ."
So yes, he yearns for the apocalypse: "That seems to be true of so many people nowadays. Things are so boring, the great monotony. Nietzsche says that man needs play and danger, but civilization gives them work and safety."
But would he actually like to get caught in the middle of the apocalypses he keeps describing -- the wild boys roving through the rubble with strange half-smiles, stranger erotic tastes and incredible weaponry; with chaos and decay, drug-addicted pirates in hanging orgies and so on and on and on . . .?
"Oh sure," he says, turning back to Nan the puppy for an instant. Nan can't get enough of this gray old man, this strange combination of an enfant terrible and an eminence grise. An enfant grise?
"You are much too excitable," Burroughs say to Nan. "Basket! Basket!"
Wouldn't it be tough for Burroughs, who walks with a cane at the age of 67, to survive his wild-boy apocalypse?
"I daresay," he daresays. "But I'd have a good a chance as most people. Even better, I'm a real gun buff. I know all about weapons. And I know more or less what to expect."
This brings up the leading story in the Burroughs legend, which has him killing his wife Joan in Mexico while trying to shoot a champagne glass off her head.
"I don't talk about that," he says. "I've given the definitive version of that story to a man writing a book that's coming out soon."
However, he is glad to set the world straight on his missing little finger. He did not chop it off with garden shears to see what it would feel like. He blew it off while playing with explosives when he was 14, growing up in St. Louis, the grandson of the man who perfected the Burroughs adding machine. "I almost lost the whole hand," he says.
Apocalypse, plagues, woundings . . . Smallpox catches his fancy this morning, or at least it seems to enter the conversation apropos of nothing.
"There's no more smallpox on the planet Earth, except in four laboratories. We're not vaccinating anymore, which strikes me as extremely unwise. If smallpox ever got loose in an unvaccinated population, it would be a real Hollywood extravaganza."
It's an odd way of putting it, but that's what Burroughs is all about.
"These things," he drawls, his hands flying in the air again as the dog approaches. When you look at Burroughs hand you know the meaning of the word "flesh-colored." Or is it that you understand what he meant when he talked about his life in Tangiers, before he stopped using heroin: "the fibrous gray wooden flesh of terminal addition"?
The puppy, all head and paws, climbs toward his lap again. It is conceivable, to judge from the alarm in Burroughs' eyes, which are otherwise free of emotion, that he might prefer the smallpox.