William Burroughs, legendary drug addict, founder member of the Beats and author of Naked Lunch, relates with unflinching realism the highs and lows of maintaining smack, from initial heroin bliss to dependency, the horrors of cold turkey and back again.
I say: I find it quite telling that a few pages in I started wondering how many times the word ‘junk’ was used in this novel. It’s telling because, to me, it means that I am focussing more on the way things are being told rather than what is being told – which is never a good thing.
I’ve read quite a few books about addicts from different perspectives and walks of life, so there was nothing new or shocking in this novel. In fact, I found it all to be rather straightforward, and seeing that it’s a semi-autobiographical work, it confirms what I’ve known for quite some time; that Burroughs has lived and done a lot. As it says in the prologue:
“You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict. It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all. And you don’t really know what junk sickness is until you have had several habits. It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and the withdrawal symptoms were mild. I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.” – xv
I am not going to discuss that quote in depth because that would be deflecting from the review. However, I do think that it’s quite telling how the protagonist, Bill, thinks of his habit; as something definite; a life sentence. He tries to get off the junk several times, for different reasons, and manages it as well, but always winds up back on it.
“An addict may be ten years off the junk, but he can get a new habit in less than a week [...].” – p 116
It’s a dismal way of thinking, a dismal way of life, and in consequence a rather dismal novel.
The reason I’m giving this a 3.5/5 is because Burroughs does a great job of describing the withdrawals and the sickness, the desperation to either try to stay clean or find another shot. We are brought into this world of drugs that feels authentic and not full of merely degenerates, but intelligent people hustling their way through – or is it towards – their addiction. As far as books about addiction go, this does what it says on the tin, but not much more than that.
*This is my twenty-third entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).