So William Burroughs too has passed into the night, a realm he knew intimately alive and will doubtlessly master dead. For Bill, through most of his 83 years, was more attuned to and focused on a world beyond the so-called normal than he was to the mundane matters we associate with daily living. He was truly, consistently and completely a rebel, a maverick, a freewheeling original who abhorred boundaries and any kind of restriction, social or artistic, and especially governmental. Throughout his life, he harbored a hatred of sham, hypocrisy, the cowardice of conformism, be it familial, peer or social--whatever could cause you to deviate from or compromise your true self. Diogenes with a knife and a gun.
Not to canonize the man: As a youth, he was in constant trouble. He wrecked the family car, got tossed out of schools, drank, was reclusive and moody. As the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine, William Seward Burroughs II, he was proudly named after his grandfather; by rights he should have been a millionaire. Fortunately, largely because his grandfather was as poor as a businessman as he was clever as an inventor, his watered-down "fortune" gave Bill a small monthly pension, just enough to give him the freedom to do what he wanted, provided poverty was not a deterrent.
For Burroughs--introverted, homosexual, depressive, junky--writing became his refuge. In the silence of his room, often a spare, rundown hotel room in a remote part of the globe, he could close the door to people and the world and create his own characters, his own time-space continuum.
Roughly the first half of his life was a constant, restless exploration of the flawed self and the more than flawed landscape of the second half of the 20th century. He lived in half a dozen countries, from Mexico to Colombia to France to Morocco, experimenting with drugs, living in an underworld of homosexuality and trafficking, in the largest sense of the term. His lifestyle of willful alienation, and his laser mind, increasingly attracted younger iconoclasts and "misfits" to him and, although he still had published nothing, he was at 40 fast becoming the guru of what would become known as the Beat Generation.
His masterful biographer, Ted Morgan, named him and titled his work "Literary Outlaw," which was both apt and accurate. His fellow writer and fellow junky, Alex Trocchi, my closest friend for many years, once described himself as a "cosmonaut of inner space," a description that fit Burroughs far more than it did Trocchi. Just before he turned 40, Burroughs finally published in 1953 his first novel, "Junky," thanks to the efforts of Allen Ginsberg, who idolized him. Like most first novels, especially the new and different, "Junky," an original paperback, was completely neglected. Not a single review. But at least he was a published author.
I met Burroughs in the spring of 1961, in Paris, at the dubious but sumptuous headquarters of one Maurice Girodias, another rebel, the founder-owner of Olympia Press, who had made a small fortune publishing Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and was squandering the proceeds as quickly as possible by opening a restaurant on the Left Bank, La Grande Severine, the cellar of which was a tango-oriented Latin-band nightclub.
I was working for Grove Press, which had recently contracted with Burroughs to be the American publisher of "Naked Lunch," and Grove owner Barney Rosset and I, who was to be his editor, were there to meet the man. Having read "Naked Lunch," I was not sure what to expect, but whatever my mind's eye had conjured up bore no resemblance to the real thing. Girodias and (I presumed) Burroughs were seated at a table at La Grande Severine, hardly speaking. Could this shy and distinguished-looking, bespectacled, neatly dressed gentleman, with his gaunt face and misty eyes, be the redoubtable author of the revolutionary novel? He looked more like a banker, or maybe an undertaker, than like a rebel with a cause. Polite to a fault, he seemed to me remote and withdrawn.
But as lunch progressed, and the wine flowed, he loosened up and began to talk about the genesis of the book: how and when he had written it over a long period and how the monstrous manuscript had been shaped and pared by his two Paris friends, Brion Gysin and Sinclair Belies. It had come out in France in a first printing of 10,000 copies, considerably more than the usual Olympia printing, and had been duly banned, as were all Olympia titles. But the desultory censors, who took six months to read and ban the books, gave readers time enough to snap up the first edition.
We explained to Burroughs that the climate in America was inauspicious, and we outlined our plan to change it. "Lady Chatterley's Lover" had been published, had been the subject of countless lawsuits but had finally prevailed in a federal court decision. Next was Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" due out that year. Then would come "Naked Lunch."