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He ended his days in Lawrence, Kansas,
surrounded by cats and guns.
Document or order lurking beneath the corrupt and compromised official one we’re forced to actually inhabit, a shadowAmerica whose lead players are dead gunslingers like John Dillinger and their predecessors such as Captain Mission, the musket-toting idealistic pirate who founded an anarchist American colony in the 18th century. The latter’s memory is fondly invoked at the outset of Cities of the Red Night, 1981. The bond, or stand-off, between pen and sword is a longestablished one.
For Burroughs, though, the gun perhaps corresponds more to the pen’s modern counterpoint, the typewriter. Both are mechanisms made of moving parts: fingers depress small levers, hammers strike, setting small residues of black stuff in motion, and content is sent, with a violent and percussive rhythm, out into the world. Words, bullets: what’s the difference? Writing, for Burroughs, is a form of combat in which language becomes a weapon. His endless experimentation – cutting-up and rearranging texts, playing reel-to-reel tapes backwards, splicing films together – had the goal not of producing something beautiful (although it often did just that), but rather of constructing a device, an assemblage of sound and image, that could make something happen: cause a riot, expose a politician’s lies, spread a cold virus. As the writer Ken Hollings put it recently, Burroughs was always asking himself: ‘how can I hurt someone with this?’ A self-appointed hitman, his ultimate target was reality itself. Kim, after killing his opponent in a shootout, takes aim at the sky and shoots a hole in it, causing blackness to pour out. “Let it come down,” writes Burroughs with apocalyptic vim.
It’s not that surprising, then, that the central episode of Burroughs’ own life involved a gun. While living in Mexico City in 1951 and married to Joan Vollmer, despite his selfevident homosexuality, he decided to sell one of his many handguns, a .380 Automatic. He needed the money and the gun shot too low anyway. A friend brokered a meeting with a buyer. While they waited at the friend’s apartment, Burroughs, Joan and sundry others drank. At one point, Burroughs, sitting in a chair, took out the loaded gun and said to Joan: “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell act.” Joan, without batting an eyelid, balanced her highball glass atop her head, and Burroughs shot. As Eddie Woods, one of their drinking buddies, describes it: “she was nine, ten feet away. And then bang – we were temporarily deafened by the sound. The next thing I knew the glass was on the floor... intact... And then I looked at her and her head had fallen to one side. Well, I thought, she’s kidding. Then I heard Allerton say, ‘Bill, I think you hit her.’”
He had; she died instantly. Burroughs was arrested and, with the help of a good lawyer and a crooked justice system, spent all of 13 nights behind bars. Later, he’d ascribe the incident to a form of supernatural possession by something that he called “the Ugly Spirit” or, simply, “Control.” Another mechanism: indeed, it was (he said) the shooting incident that revealed this mechanism to him – and showed him the way to beat it. As he wrote years later: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realisation of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with constant threat of possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write my way out.”
The rest is literary history. Burroughs produced some of the most stunning and influential writing of the 20th century. He ended his days in Lawrence, Kansas, surrounded by cats and guns, his wife’s death having failed to quell his love of the latter. Burroughs stuck to bottles, TV sets and, of course, bags of paint hung up in front of doors. The last passages he wrote are melancholic: at the end of his final novel in 1987 The Western Lands, he paints himself as a kind of priest of a dead religion, or curator of a dead museum, slowing dying among his old collection: “the director reels around an empty set giving meaningless orders. The radio is out. The guns stopped working light-years ago.”
Tom McCarthy’s new novel, C, is published by Jonathan Cape.
For years William S Burroughs lived in a former locker-room of a YMCA on the Bowery in Manhattan. When he died in 1997, the almost windowless room, known as “The Bunker”, was preserved intact with all its contents by his friend, the poet and artist John Giorno, and it is still used to occasionally house visiting artists. Brooklyn-based photographer Peter Ross recently visited The Bunker and took photographs of Burroughs’ possessions for a series titled William Burroughs’s Stuff. The items he found, listed below, explore both man and myth, ranging from the homely to the bizarre.
1. Shoes 2. Typewriter 3. Manriki-gusari 4. Blowdarts 5. Shoe shine supplies 6. Grasshopper 7. Walking sticks 8. Pinwheels 9. Candles 10. Daisy Air Pistol 11. Panama Hat 12. Guns and Ammo, Soldier of Fortune, and American Rifleman magazines 13. Bullets and Butterfly Tray 14. Bedspread 15. Books: German Uniforms of the Third Reich, by Brian Leigh Davis, The Medical Implications of Karate Blows by Brian Adams 16. Footstool
Ross’ images can be found at www.heypeterross.com