In 1945 in New York City, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate from St. Louis named William Seward Burroughs II was introduced to 22-year-old Barnard graduate Joan Vollmer by two young writers both knew — Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Bill and Joan hit it off immediately. “Their humor clicked, and they clearly enjoyed each other’s company,” writes Barry Miles in his engrossing, deeply researched new biography “Call Me Burroughs: A Life.”
Burroughs said of Vollmer, “She was a very extraordinary woman and we got talking, exchanging ideas; she was the smartest person around. . . . She had an immediate insight into anyone’s character. Just one look and she knew.”
Although Burroughs was primarily interested in men, he could love women, too, and he and Vollmer fell almost immediately into a deep affair inspired as much by almost constant alcohol-and-drug-fueled intellectual conversation as by sexual love. She became his common-law wife.
Six years later, in Mexico City, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer.
According to Miles, the couple were drunk in a flat above an American bar when they decided to play “William Tell.” Burroughs had been attracted to guns ever since his youth in St. Louis, when his father would take him duck hunting, and he carried a pistol with him wherever he went. This time, he tried to shoot a glass off Joan’s head. His hand wavered and he shot her in the head.
Burroughs spent 13 days in jail before his family managed to bribe the proper people to get him released on bail. Before the case could come to trial, Burroughs skipped town, first going to Central America in search of a mind-altering drug called yage, then returning to the United States, still restless. He made his way to London and then to Tangiers, where drugs and sex were easily available and cheap. He then went to Venice, to Paris, and back to New York, with numerous side trips. He was able to live and travel without working because of the regular stipend provided by his family.
No matter where he went, the death of Joan haunted Burroughs for the rest of his long life, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion,” he once wrote, “that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.”
Throughout the book, wisely, Miles questions Burroughs’ interpretation of events. In this case, he points out that Burroughs had actually written almost all of his first autobiographical book, “Junky,” eight months before he shot Joan. (Miles credits James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ longtime secretary, manager and friend, with that insight, and with providing a great deal of information for “Call Me Burroughs.”)
Burroughs had little success as a writer until 1959, when his third autobiographical novel was published. “Naked Lunch” is a series of raucous and often obscene tales, inspired by Burroughs’ travels and his search for drugs, often embellished with wild and paranoic exaggerations. The best-known scene in the book features the crazed Dr. Benway performing heart surgery with a toilet plunger.
Over the years, Burroughs continued to write fiction, some of it highly experimental; to create visual art, and even to act in films and work with musicians, but “Naked Lunch” remains his best-known work.
Miles, who has written extensively about Beat Generation writers and who knew Burroughs for many years, has delivered a massive biography that is filled with information and doesn’t flinch from controversy. At times, Miles gives us more secondary information than we need or want, but in the main his prose is lively and the book on the whole is a pleasure and a revelation to read. It’s particularly fascinating for anyone interested in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac and their passionate relationship with one another.
Over the years, as he traveled from city to city, in this country and aboard, Burroughs sporadically fought to free himself of his drug addiction, going through long periods of misery to get clean, only to succumb again. But the last 17 years of his life, he was on a maintenance dose of legally prescribed methadone. For most of that time, he was living in relative peace in a Midwestern college town far from the intensity and temptations of cities and from the criminals and junkies he had chosen to live among and write about.
Miles writes that Burroughs “had no real home until he bought a house in Lawrence, Kansas, at the age of 69.”
In summary, Miles writes that Burroughs “did not have a happy life; he was plagued by loneliness and lack of love, racked with guilt, not just over the death of Joan, but for his neglect of friends and family. ... Many people have commented how much Burroughs changed after moving to Kansas; old age softened him; for the first time he had a home, a support system of friends, fame and recognition, a regular supply of drugs and his cats. ...”
William Burroughs died in Lawrence on Aug. 2, 1997, after a heart attack. He was 83.
Harper Barnes interviewed Burroughs for the Post-Dispatch several times in the 1980s and early 1990s and once had him over for brunch.