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Barry Miles’ new biography gets to the heart of William S. Burroughs

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Chuck Twardy

Four stars

Call Me Burroughs: A Life By Barry Miles, $32.

William S. Burroughs and I landed in Lawrence, Kansas, in the early 1980s. I moved there for my first newspaper job, at the Lawrence Journal-World. Burroughs evacuated his “Bunker” in New York City to live a less-complicated, less-expensive life.

Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, was an oasis of hipsterdom in the rolling prairie, an ideal setting for the author of Naked Lunch. The restless Burroughs lived in the modest ranch house at 1927 Learnard Avenue for 15 years, longer than anywhere else, and cranked out seven books, including The Western Lands and the long-held manuscript of Queer.

I interviewed Burroughs there for a profile that ran on February 5, 1984, his 70th birthday. Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles’ exhaustive and enlightening biography, appeared earlier this month, in time for Burroughs’ centenary.

Burroughs told me he’d moved to Lawrence because it reminded him of his boyhood surroundings in St. Louis, where, by Miles’ account, life should have been idyllic. His father Mortimer was the prosperous son of the adding-machine inventor, and mother Laura fawned over Billy. They rescued their son countless times, paying him until age 50 an allowance routinely squandered on drugs, booze and sex—as Burroughs gathered tales and characters for his books, in New York, Mexico City, Tangier and Paris.

A trauma with a childhood nurse spawned Burroughs’ “Ugly Spirit,” a demon real or imagined that tormented him despite years of psychoanalysis—perhaps even guiding the bullet that killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, when both were drunk and he tried to shoot a glass off her head in 1951. Other spirits guided Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, with whom he shaped the Beat Generation, and to painter Brion Gysin, who inspired Burroughs as a writer and painter.

Scorning bourgeois conformity until his death in 1997, Burroughs embraced risks, from petty crime to morphine addiction to sex with adolescent boys. Miles chronicles sexual adventures we’ve come to despise as exploitative, making no excuses but making it clear they were more broadly available and grudgingly tolerated then than now. He says Burroughs wrote about sex “to purposely annoy his readers, a Swiftian gesture to reveal their prurience and to undermine their middle-class values.”

Admirably, Miles shows that Burroughs could be puerile and petulant, but also that, at heart, he was a writer of moral purpose and compassion.

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