American Dreams, 1953: ‘Junky’ by William S. Burroughs
In 1953, at the height of American conformism and anti-communist hysteria, William S. Burroughs published Junky, an irresistible strung-out ode to the joys and perversities of drug addiction. Nathaniel Rich takes a hit.
In 1953, while Joseph McCarthy was hunting for communists in the highest ranks of the federal government, an Arkansan congressman named Ezekiel C. Gathings was conducting his own witch hunt. His target was the paperback-book industry. He argued that pulp fiction had “largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion, and degeneracy.” Of particular interest to Gathings were novels about drug abusers, a class of American society nearly as reviled as communists. At the time, as Allen Ginsberg later wrote, there was a sense “that if you talked about ‘tea’ (much less Junk) on the bus or subway, you might be arrested—even if you were only discussing a change in the law.” The publication of a pulp novel named Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, by the pseudonymous William Lee, was therefore a welcome surprise. It sold 100,000 copies in its first six months. American readers wanted what “Lee” was pushing.
Lee was William S. Burroughs, Harvard graduate and heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune. Burroughs’s inheritance left the young scion free to pursue education and drugs at his leisure. He first took up anthropology, at both Harvard and later Mexico City College; then medicine, in Vienna; and finally heroin. Heroin stuck. Junky—as his novel is now known—combines all these interests. Unlike Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (also published in 1953), Junky eschews allegory for scrupulous realism. The approach is journalistic, pedagogical, often clinical, bearing little resemblance to novels for which Burroughs is now better remembered, like Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Although Bill, Junky’s narrator, mentions reading Oscar Wilde, Anatole France, Baudelaire, and Gide as a young boy, the tone owes more to Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Junky is Bill’s life story, but only in a sense, for he discusses only the parts of his life that relate to junk. The story follows the development of his addiction, his attempts to quit, and his travels in search of cheaper, better drugs. Along the way we meet a largely interchangeable cast of dealers, users, thieves, and con artists. More than anything else, Junky reads like a field guide to the American underworld.
“Junk,” we learn, refers to opium and its derivatives: morphine, heroin, pantopon, Dilaudid, codeine. But it is much more than that. Junk, he says, “is a way of life.” And it’s an expensive one at that. A heroin addiction in 1953 cost about $15 a day, or the equivalent of $125 in today’s dollars. Junkies have their own look (emaciated, haunted, sallow) and their own junk names: Doolie, Cash, and Dupré. Junk has its own dialect. A user who robs drunks on the subway to support his habit is a “lush-worker”; a junkie’s eyedropper, spoon, and hypodermic needle constitute his “works”; doctors are “croakers.” The easiest way to convince a croaker to write a “script” for morphine is to fake gallstones or kidney stones. If those excuses fail, try facial neuralgia.
Heroin addiction takes patience and dedication. Burroughs estimates that you need a year and several hundred injections to develop a habit. An addict does not use heroin to get a thrill—never does Bill experience joy from heroin. A junkie uses only to avoid junk sickness, otherwise known as withdrawal. Junk sickness is like a hangover mixed with burning alive and a parasitic infestation: “I felt a cold burn over the whole surface of my body as though the skin was one solid hive. It seemed like ants were crawling under the skin.” There is also vomiting, diarrhea, violent sneezing fits, loss of breath, lowering of blood pressure, and extreme weakness. Bill feels a sensation like “subsiding into a pile of bones.” This condition might conceivably be manageable were it to last for 12 or 24 hours. But junk sickness tends to last 8 days.
There are cures for addiction, but they tend not to last. Not because the cures are ineffective; they are effective, particularly the incremental “Chinese cure,” which Bill uses, a gradual weaning that involves replacing the drug with increasing doses of Wampole’s Tonic. Bill stays sober for many months at a time. But he always returns to the junk—out of boredom.
Here lies the novel’s core perversity. The main reason the junkie does heroin, despite its horrors and despair, is because it’s better than the alternative: not doing heroin. It is better to be a junkie than to end up what Burroughs might have been, had he followed in his family’s line. The life of an “American business man,” he writes, “is a one-way process. When his organism reaches maturity it can only start dying.”
A junkie, on the other hand, exists in a state of constant physical emergency. With every hit, a junkie dies; as the drug’s effects dissipate, he is reborn. “Junk,” writes Burroughs at last, in the cleanest expression of the novel’s thesis, “is an inoculation of death.” It is total negation. “Perhaps the intense discomfort of withdrawal is the transition ... from a painless, sexless, timeless state back to sex and pain and time, from death back to life.” The junkie knows life because he has an intimate knowledge of death. That is another way of saying that the junkie, unlike our “American business man,” knows himself.
But Burroughs is after something more than self-realization. Junky is not, after all, a memoir, a fact underscored by his cursory treatment of even the most basic biographical information. Bill’s wife, oddly, is introduced for the first time—and even then only in passing, by another character—more than halfway through the novel. His children are mentioned once, 50 pages later, in a single mysterious sentence: “My wife was in Acapulco with the children.” Junk leaves no room for family, jobs, or relationships other than those organized around the procurement and enjoyment of junk.
Near the end of the novel Bill moves to Mexico. He has plans to flee even farther away, deep into South America. The expat junkies he meets during his travels confirm his worst fears about his native country. McCarthy’s paranoia has infected America, which has entered “a state of complete chaos where you never know who is who or where you stand.” The junkie is grateful for his junk. At least he will always know exactly where he stands—even if he doesn’t know where he’ll end up.
Other notable novels published in 1953:
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
National Book Award:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Bestselling novel of the year:
The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowle