For What It's Worth

Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Junky by William S. Burroughs

Note: This is a guest review written by Alex. He started his own blog so after you finish reading this go visit him at Eclectic Inspirations! Congratulations on the new blog!!

Junky by William S. Burroughs is a part autobiographical, part fiction novel about Junk (drugs) through following William Lee (a pseudonym for Burroughs). I read it after winning it from Roof Beam Reader but when I had, I was ecstatic to have a chance to finally see what Burroughs’ books were like. It didn’t disappoint.

The story is entirely central on drugs, the users and the obtaining of one by the other (with occasionally a few pages when the habit is kicked). This may seem crude and put off readers who want to know about lives and interaction and all that, but Burroughs makes the point that when you are addicted, there is nothing else. Personal relations only mean something as a) a source of money, b) as a supplier or c) someone who’ll take drugs with you. There are times when these people seem like friends, but I always took the relationships to be as a reliance on the other person for the ‘fix’ they live for. It is a sad way to live, from the outside, but it appears that way because he wanted so determinedly to focus on the effect of drugs on the individual: he didn’t want other nonsense clogging up his novel.

But don’t believe the characters are flat because of that. We don’t see the characters a lot or really get to know them, but they have different levels of empathy and cruelty as well as pasts to make each of them interesting in the short time we know them. You could name any (well almost any) character and I’m sure I’d remember something about them. I think it’s a credit to his writing that I can say this with any certainty.

Actually reading the book was marvelous too, because I never felt like I was reading. I constantly had faces and events happening before me, and I had lost 2 hours before I knew they were gone. It was absorbing- there is no other way to put it. As the author said: “I spent over a year working on this manuscript. I checked over every word many times.” I think it shows.

I found it incredibly interesting that Burroughs wanted the book to be called Junk, not Junky or Junkie. His original publishers (Ace) and later Penguin, both thought a book called Junk wouldn’t sell because it gave the wrong idea. I understand where they’re coming from, but I think you should give some credit to the guy who wrote the book. The reason I bring that up though is that it acted as a reminder, for me, that this book was about drugs, not the users. So when I read it, I tried to move away from the people and, as in maths, think of them as Xs and Ys, put there almost as catalysts. The point was made that there is no realistic ‘type’ for a user, only that they use it. He says he could identify users, but he also says they were from different walks of life. He himself was from a wealthy, middle-class background. About halfway through the book, I also realised another reason for this. He was talking about the valley his protagonist worked in, and spent a while on it. In talking about it (I won’t go into details) he seemed to link back to drugs continually in an allegorical kind of way. In hindsight, I think this helped me understand the concept and absoluteness of drug use.

There were two things I didn’t like though. One was the ghost-like appearance of his wife. She pops into scenes from time to time and does instrumental, odd things. One could consider her but a plot device, but she was there just too many times. He said that she wasn’t there because she wasn’t necessary, which I can respect, but I have to say I liked her and would have liked her opinions more often. The other thing is a bit more me being me. There was one bit that made me want to turn away and put the book down more than most violence I’ve read; and that was the protagonist taking his anger out on the cat. I am a cat owner and this just made me feel sick to read, especially when the cat hides and starts whimpering. I can reason my disgust away, but I still feel sick to read or think about it.

For me, it’s hard to pin this novel down. Try though I have, it uses story and language to an effect that I don’t believe there is one single thing to be taken away from the novel. If everyone were to read it, I honestly believe each would take one single thing away from the novel as the main idea, but still agree and understand every view out there. Okay, this happens with everything, you might say, but that is always minor. This story is an account. Yes, there are allusions to other things and what not, but they are things related to the story and there is no terrible bias and we are left to our opinions and conclusions.
So I really liked the book, because I think it was a predominantly honest insight into the mind of a user and I’ll never consider a ‘druggie’ in the same light or with the same uninformed prejudice. And they’re the best books, aren’t they? The ones that leave you better than you were when you started them.

Rating: 4 out of 4 (How could it be anything else?)

Buy the book!
The original Junky is available by various sellers on Amazon or you can buy the 50th Anniversary Edition....

Product Description
Before his 1959 breakthrough, Naked Lunch, an unknown William S. Burroughs wrote Junk, his first book, a candid, eyewitness account of times and places that are now long gone. This book brings them vividly to life again; it is an unvarnished field report from the American postwar underground. For this definitive 50th-anniversary edition, eminent Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris has painstakingly re-created the author's original text, word by word, from archival typescripts. Here for the first time are Burroughs's own unpublished Introduction and an entire omitted chapter, along with many "lost" passages and auxiliary texts by Allen Ginsberg and others. Harris's comprehensive Introduction reveals the composition history of Junk's text and places its contents against a lively historical background.


  1. Oh lord. Feels like I read this years ago for my American mythology class in college. I think at the time I didn't care for it because it was 'required' reading. LOL

    Also, I remember thinking the ghost wife was 'trippy' too, and annoying.

    Thanks for the review, Alex. Brought back all kinds of memories.

  2. Thanks for the helpful intro to this book! It's on a lot of important literary lists, and I'm glad to have a little more information about it.

  3. Missie- I'm still kind of at school (it's no longer compulsory though) but I did read this for fun. I know how you feel though, I don't have half a memory for about 90% of the books I read in earlier years; and I read a lot of stuff.

    I'm glad you agree about the wife though, it was a very 'Who the hell are you?' whenever she came up. I hope I brought back GOOD memories!

    Tiger- It's a bit more than an intro *blushes*.

  4. So glad you enjoyed it, Alex! I've got a Burroughs book (The Cat Inside) on my pile of books for today's read-a-thon. There are 12 books in the pile and I'm only on #4 (with about 13 hours to go) ...not sure if I'll manage to read all of 'em. I think Burroughs is up next, though.