When I was an undergrad at Illinois State University many years ago, a writing workshop classmate of mine claimed that he and some friends had made a visit to Lawrence, Kansas in hopes of meeting William S. Burroughs, who was living there at the time. Not only had they met him, he said, but they’d been allowed to hang out in Burroughs’ house. At the time, I didn’t buy my classmate’s story. This was just a few years before Burroughs’ death, a time when he’d reached the status of counterculture legend. David Cronenberg had recently made Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch into a feature film, and Burroughs had even collaborated on a recording with Kurt Cobain. Why would he want to make time for some dudes from Normal, Illinois of all places?
After reading Barry Miles biography Call Me Burroughs: A Life, I think this guy’s story about his pilgrimage to Lawrence, Kansas might have been true. I recount this story because I’ve always felt that any good biography should make you feel like you know the subject on some level, and Miles’ work definitely succeeds in that department. Not that he gives a concise summary of Burroughs’ life. The book runs over 600 pages, and that’s not counting the notes, bibliography and other such things. I would not recommend this for someone who wants to learn just the basics about Burroughs’ life and work. For that, I would recommend the podcast on Williams S. Burroughs narrated by Iggy Pop that This American Life ran a few years ago.
Call Me Burroughs seems to cover just about everything: Burroughs fatal shooting of his wife Joan, his work with cut up techniques in writing and other art forms, the creation of Naked Lunch –his best known book—his friendship with beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg, and has long battle with—and sometimes his embrace of—various drugs. Miles’ biography is a warts and all account. Despite his ascension to cult icon, Burroughs had money problems most of his life and a very poor relationship with his troubled son. And while he did not succumb to a drug overdose or drink himself to death the way many of his friends and associates did, he was on the methadone program up until the end of his life, making regular trips from Lawrence to a methadone clinic in Kansas City. Call Me Burroughs may not be a quick read, but it does cover someone who led a fascinating life.