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SHOCK APPEAL / Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us? : WILLIAM BURROUGHS: El Hombre Invisible, By Barry Miles (Hyperion: $22.95; 254 pp.)

August 01, 1993|Brad Gooch | Gooch is the author of "City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara " (Knopf). He is working on a novel

The subtitle of Barry Miles' "William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible" is a tip-off. The nickname, given Burroughs by Spanish street kids in Tangiers in the late 1950s, was a compliment to his skill at slipping tracelessly through narrow alleys to score a drug fix. Its current implication is that here's a subject who's not going to sit still to have his portrait taken.

Luckily, Miles does manage to get Burroughs to leave an impression on his negative. He does so mostly by playing up the Boswellian advantage of having known his subject since 1965. Burroughs was then living in London and was already infamous for having written "Naked Lunch"--the origami of a novel banned in Boston while its author was being praised by Norman Mailer as "the only American writer conceivably possessed by genius." Between 1965 and 1972, Miles worked for Burroughs, cataloguing his archives at his flat in Duke Street, St. James's, and making occasional notes on their after-dinner talks. His comfort with his subject is warm enough for him to write this biography on a first-name basis: "Bill." Its pleasures are those of access, of insider trading. Such a tack is all the more noticeable from Miles, whose 1989 "Allen Ginsberg: A Biography" was much more wide angle, hefty, detail-doting.

The animating connection made by Miles is between Burrough's life--especially his friendships and romances--and his work. With Burroughs it's a connection that's been easy to disbelieve. Born in St. Louis in 1914, the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine who moved on to study English literature at Harvard, Burroughs has been able to pull off a stiff-lipped imitation of a WASP banker quite successfully over the years.

Indeed, he showed a talent for stock roles as early as 1943 when he moved into an apartment on West 115th Street with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac--ground zero for the beat movement. There he began to devise his "routines"--monologues in which he ventriloquially shifted from lesbian governess to gun-toting Southern sheriff to bald-skulled silent Chinese. Adapting such 2-D roles to his life, he became a sort of self-created American dandy, speaking in the flat tones of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett detective novel, dressing in a '40s trilby hat and trench coat. His odd jobs as detective and exterminator seemed as much skits as attempts to scrape by. Such role-playing became more darkly and ineradicably shadowed after he accidentally killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a Mexico City hotel room in 1949 while trying to shoot a six-ounce water glass off her head as part of "a William Tell act."

More than 30 years later, Burroughs wrote, "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death." Yet most of Burrough's writings seem as disconnected from recognizable, daily life as his various personae.

After a period of writing fairly straightforward prose, "Junkie," a first-person account of his heroin addiction, was published in a lurid trade paperback edition of 100,000 copies and received no reviews when released in 1953. "Queer," its sequel, set mostly in Mexico City gay bars, was not released until 1986.

The rest of Burroughs' novels are set in a surreal landscape pulverized from classic boyhood genres: sci-fi, detective, Western. The blank innocence of such fictional spots is then splattered by erotic hangings, viral invasions, paranoid rants. "Naked Lunch" is a masterpiece of spliced routines. "The Soft Machine," "The Ticket That Exploded" and "Nova Express" were written as a trilogy in the 1960s, deploying the "cut-up" method by which Burroughs lined up unrelated texts to create new sentences by a process of educated chance. In a 1959 letter to Allen Ginsberg (quoted in "The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959," just released from Viking with a perceptive introduction by Oliver Harris) Burroughs crankily refused even to supply a brief bio to Grove Press: "I just can't write one of those autobiographical notes the way writers do, you know where they live and their pets." In his cultivation of "impersonality" Burroughs seems closest in spirit to his fellow St. Louis native, T. S. Eliot, whose "The Waste Land" he once praised as "the first great cut-up collage."

Miles' service in "William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible" is to fill the life between the lines. The surprise is Burroughs' admission in a letter to Ginsberg (quoted in both "El Hombre" and "The Letters"): "I have to have receivers for routine." It turns out that Burroughs felt he was incapable of flourishing unless he was writing to, and for, a friend, especially a lover. (In this one respect he was unexpectedly similar to the poet Frank O'Hara, who compared his own poems written during the same era to unmade telephone calls.)

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