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William Burroughs, Junky

This compelling autobiography of the leading Beat writer is for me reminder that gold often lies among the trash in the centre of the city dump. Years ago I sampled Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, but gave up in despair at its incongruities, its sudden passages of brilliance being insufficient to compensate for what often seemed mind-wandering drivel. I thought I’d never touch Burroughs again. Junky, however is something else; its sad-eyed, intelligent and honest writing strikes a melancholy chord. I might even try him again.

Like much American autobiography Junky captures the reader from the start with its tough no nonsense, stick to the facts approach to story-telling. Open the book at any page and you find passages like this: ‘I was in a cheap cantina off Dolores Street, Mexico City. I had been drinking for about two weeks. I was sitting in a booth with three Mexicans drinking tequila. The Mexicans were fairly well-dressed. One of them spoke English. A middle-aged, heavy-set Mexican with a sad, sweet sang songs and played the guitar.’ It’s difficult not to want to know more. Burroughs sets the scene, then focusses on one character, a well-dressed musician in a dive bar. What will happen? This deadpan, Hemingway style never becomes monotonous. The reader believes in the writer’s integrity and trusts him to tell it like it was.

Of course, the writing is not as artless as it seems. As in Hemingway, in a story such as ‘The Killers’ the quietness conceals an underlying threat, a suggestion of desperation and violence. This is Mexico, dammit, and our narrator is a wily and possibly dangerous psychopath.

The surprising thing about this notorious drug-fiend and burnt out literary genius is that he came from a highly respectable middle-class background, attended ‘one of the Big Three universities’ and later ‘saw a way of life, a vocabulary, references, a whole symbol system, as the sociologists say.’ Hence this prose in a paragraph from Burroughs’ Prologue is, compared to the rest of the narrative, sophisticated, well-muscled, just as sharp and cynical, but more inclined to elaboration, yet ending colloquially, ‘But these people were jerks … and I cooled off on the setup.’

I could guarantee that once you pick up this book, the Penguin edition of which bears the warning or invitation ‘Keep out of Children’s Reach,’ you will not easily put it down.

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I went through a phase of reading a lot of Beat writing when I was an undergraduate student many moons ago, and Junky stands out for me as one of the best things I read at that time.


Burroughs' reputation as an experimenter and just being too avant-garde for some is deserved, but this is a very accessible book and unlike much of his other work. Yes, the content is explicit, but this is only to be expected given its subject matter, and there is little in it that is deliberately offensive in the way I felt some of Burroughs' later work was.     

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  • 1 year later...

I agree on JUNKY.

I remember the part, where he gets off HEROIN...so he started drinking so much TEQUILA, that the doctor tells him to go back to Heroin.


Yes, good book, it was the first I read of his, it got me excited for all beats..but no one is quite like him.


On the road, I liked, but to "stream of consciousness", even though it an absurd way, it makes you feel alive.

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  • 2 years later...

I spotted this in the book shop and decided from there to read it.  I wasn't disappointed.  I liked the clear no nonsense writing and could figure out the terminology.  I had never heard of Burroughs before so I had no idea that he was part of the Beat genre (so that's another first for me) and have not read anything else by him - but I will.


A short book but very well written and compelling although the subject matter might not be to everyone's taste.


I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it.

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