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A Mercilessly Unsentimental Look at a Homosexual Affair

February 10, 1986|MALCOLM BOYD | Boyd's 21st book, "Half Laughing/Half Crying: Songs for Myself," will be published by St. Martin's Press in January. and

Queer by William S. Burroughs (Viking: $14.95)

Unpublished for three decades, this novel tells the story of a seduction in Mexico in the '40s. William Lee, whose "face was ravaged and vicious and old, but the clear, green eyes were dreamy and innocent," falls in love with Eugene Allerton, who dislikes commitments and has never been in love.

They reach an accommodation to stay together for a while but limit sexual contact to twice a week. Yet Lee continues to feel "the tearing ache of limitless desire" and is tormented by lust, this heightened by Allerton's obvious detachment and impersonal calm.

'Wave of Sadness'

Lee places one arm across Allerton's chest in bed one night, snuggles close to the boy's body, and feels deep tenderness at the warm contact. But Allerton pushes him away, rejecting feeling. That night Lee has a dream. "The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness, and now he was crying, his body shaking with sobs. . . . A group of people were standing there in convict suits."

This novel was "motivated" and "formed," Burroughs tells us in his introduction, by the accidental shooting death of his wife, Joan, in 1951. He also invokes the name Denton Welch, the English writer who was crippled when run over by a car at the age of 20 in 1935. When Welch died of his injuries in 1948, he had written three autobiographical novels in which his homosexuality plays a prominent role. Burroughs identifies Welch's "feeling of universal desolation and loss" with his own response to the manuscript of "Queer," and the events in his life, when he wrote it.

Lee, who is a junk addict, is in withdrawal during the unfolding of "Queer" and feels "the compulsive need for an audience." Seeking this in Allerton, he invents a series of routines--comic, outrageous, riveting monologues. These are about an oil man, chess and "Wisdom-of-the-East." The routines break the flow of the narrative. They inevitably heighten the tension between Lee and Allerton that became evident when the latter was appalled by Lee's "leer of naked lust, wrenched in the pain and hate of his deprived body and, in simultaneous double exposure, a sweet child's smile of liking and trust, shockingly out of time and out of place, mutilated and hopeless."

What Lee is really looking for is "contact or recognition, like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording in Allerton's consciousness." Lee cannot understand that he is already committed to writing, "inexorably pressed into the world of fiction."

"Queer" is a stunner. A neglected work that became legendary in its very absence, it is a raw, probing, mercilessly unsentimental work of fiction. You'll forget it about as easily as you will a shark in the waves at the beach.

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