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Sunday, September 01, 2013

Review of The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico

Review of The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico:

I have never read any Burroughs and based on this weird biographical sketch I suspect I never will.  Seemingly fueled by any drug he could get, often in a stupor, with little sense of responsibility, I would have crossed the street to avoid walking past him. 

Garcia-Robles met Burroughs in 1990 and out of this meeting came the idea to write about Burroughs's stay in Mexico, a period of time Burroughs was reluctant to discuss. His time there resulted in the death of his wife from Burroughs's gun.  

It was not the first time he had been related to a violent act.  His friend Lucien Carr murdered David Kamerer in 1944 and Carr had enlisted the aid of Burroughs and Jack Kerouac to hide the evidence.  As a result he and Kerouac were arrested for the cover-up.  Burroughs's father bailed him out but Kerouac's family refused to help so he had to marry into money a few days later (I wish this had been explained more fully, but I suppose it had little to do with the main story.)  Supposedly Kerouac's "And the Hippos Boiled in their Tanks" was based on the incident.  It was about this time that  Burroughs met Joan Vollmer his later wife and future victim of his gun. 

It was a bizarre relationship, both indulging in their own predilections and often self-destructive actions. ("She told everyone, for example, how making love to him [he of homosexual tendencies] sometimes gave her foot cramps.")  Burroughs was soon also married to illicit substances and shaking down bums on the street to supplement the $200 a month his family sent unwillingly (so why do it?) supporting his heroin habit. 
Sentenced by a judge to his family in St. Louis (he hated anything remotely familial) he soon fell in with Kells Elvins and together they bought some land in Texas, departing with numerous grandiose schemes. Joan in the meantime had become destitute, was overdosing on Bennies, and was finally sentenced to Bellevue.  When Burroughs was notified, he schemed to get her out and took her off to Texas for five years of intense relationship where he planned to raise marijuana and sell it wholesale.  He didn't even think of writing, but found time to impregnate Joan (no foot cramps this time?) They spent their time smoking weed and listening to music.  Soon the crop was in and they drove 3000 ( according to the author -- my google maps says more like 2200) miles with the crop stuffed in their vehicle to New York, but they had failed to dry the crop properly so it was unsaleable.  Burroughs went back to sticking a needle in his arm.  Are you beginning to get a picture, here?  In the meantime, Kerouac and Nel Cassady, the "American Dionysus" weave their way in and out of Burroughs and Joan's lives, although little is said about their relationship, especially with regard to writing. 

Burroughs finally decided to give writing a try while under the influence.  His decision was motivated by a need to make some money,  his writing a form "of mumbling." 

Garcia-Robles occasionally makes some snide comments: "the apartment on 115th Street lacked just one thing: for his highness Burroughs to move in..."  There was little preceding that comment to justify it, regardless of its correctness.  On the other hand, none of the characters was particularly likeable so perhaps they are justified.  One wonders about the little asides, such as the digression into the life of Lola, the Mexican drug lord.  I also was skeptical about the perspective, i.e., how much came from Burroughs in the interviews, and how much the author gleaned about his subject from less subjective sources.  Comments like, "Joan wanted to die and Bill served as her escort to the final precipice. Further still, he would be the executor of her fate. What better companion toward the darkness than William S. Burroughs, over whom death loomed every minute of his life, like a swarm of mosquitoes around his head, like a black aura enveloping his body? Death was always breathing down his neck, though he never succumbed in desperation. Bill was a leathery reptile with an incredible ability to plunge to the depths and surface unscathed. Not Joan. Joan was tender. Her intelligence and clarity were not made of the same bullet-proof stuff as Burroughs’s. Joan was more like Kerouac: life seemed too large for them. Neither could face the world, neither could deal squarely with it, so it destroyed them—in different ways, but in the same measure," while intriguing, left me wondering. 

Ultimately, this book is more of a curiosity that pulls us along wondering what calamity will befall Burroughs next. All of his own making.  The central goal of the book, the shooting of Joan, I will not comment on in fear of raising the ire of the spoiler Nazis. 

Full disclosure:  I haven't read anything of Burroughs and this book was kindly made available to me by the University of Minnesota Press through NetGalley.

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