Rub-Out-the-Words-Willam-S-BurroughsEvery college kid my age read and was influenced by Beat literature in the 60’s.  After all, it was Lawrence, Kansas and everybody opposed the war in Vietnam, everybody smoked dope, and everybody was having a good time.  I came across “Naked Lunch” in a used bookstore in San Francisco and read it in one sitting.  Later, someone gave me a vinyl recording of Burroughs reading selections of the book and I played that record over and over, never quite coming to terms with the sardonic, poker-voiced Burroughs as he read wildly imaginative renderings of what turned out to be satire on the American Dream.  When I began collecting books I found a few nice editions of Kerouac, Burroughs and others, and found some vintage paperbacks they’d published before they were famous.  Burroughs was still publishing and I collected his first editions, though I thought his later writing turned soft.

 Then I learned that Burroughs had chosen Lawrence, Kansas as a place to spend his later life.  He bought a house there and became a local hero, not that he wasn’t a national hero.  But Lawrence, a very liberal place in an otherwise hick state, seemed to suit him.  Small, but culturally alive, Lawrence was very literary, literate and hip.  He was allowed to live quietly, though he had hangers-on.

 In the early 90s I was managing editor of Watermark Press in Wichita, still collecting Burroughs first editions and rarities.  At that point I learned that Burroughs was coming to Wichita to do a reading and book signing. Wow.  What a treat!  At that point, I tore up my knee playing basketball, had major surgery, and was on crutches.  What was going to happen when Burroughs came to town?  I knew there’d be a crowd.  How would I get all my Burroughs first editions signed, not to mention all those lovely paperback originals?  It turns out that the owner of the bookstore escorted me through the hoards of fellow Burroughs admirers that packed the lovely old Watermark Books (a fabulous old independent bookstore, now gone…).  He carried my books.  In the crowd I saw Burroughs sitting at a flat wooden table with a stack of books in front of him, a pen, and a glass of water nearby.  The owner took me to the table and let me sit in a chair next to Burroughs, introduced me, and left me there while Burroughs went about his business signing books, talking to customers, and drinking water.

Every now and then, Burroughs would look over at me and we’d exchange pleasantries.  He was a great gentleman and treated all his fans with perfect courtesy.  He asked me about myself and I told him I was a crime novelist, knowing he was a fan of pulp literature.  I pulled out a copy of my book Cold Cash and handed it over to him and he accepted it with a gracious smile. When most of the customers were gone, Burroughs patiently signed all his books for me without a hint of consternation or impatience.

For about an hour I had conversed with one of the greats in American literature. He was unfailingly kind, soft-spoken and courteous.  I hobbled out knowing I’d had a special experience.  Later, at an art museum across town Burroughs gave one of his spectacular readings—the same sardonic, matter-of-fact voice intoning what can only be called “otherworldly” writing.  It was a great day.  Thank God I tore up my knee playing basketball.

Believe it or not, I got a Christmas card that year from Burroughs, addressed to me in care of the bookstore and Watermark Press, where I worked.  It’s now one of my prized possessions in a large collection of Beat literature.


Morgan, Bill (ed.), Rub out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Ecco/Harper Collins, New York, 2012 (444pp., $35)

Iconoclast, part-time heroin addict, and father-confessor to the Beat Generation, William S. Burroughs, who, at the end of his life, chose to live in Lawrence, Kansas, was in 1959 living in Paris at 9 Rue Git-le-Couer, a rickety pile of sticks that came to be known as the Beat Hotel because so many poets and writers had taken up residence there.  Burroughs had recently published the justly famous “Naked Lunch”, a cause celebre in France and a source of consternation in the United States, where writing about sex, drugs and metaphysics was frowned on.

Burroughs is best known for his controversial experiments with psychedelic drugs and an offbeat literary style erected from pastiche and “cut-ups”, and for his confessor/lover-style relationships with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso.  They had met in New York while the younger men were students at Columbia.

But Burroughs was older than the Beats, went his own way, dabbling in L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology and Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone treatment therapy, while undergoing the unusual apomorphine treatment for his heroin addiction in London.  He was an early supporter and friend of Timothy Leary, both men bent on rending their inner lives by the use of drugs like peyote and LSD.

Books like “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch” announced an utterly black view of America, a topsy-turvy psychological and biological understanding of language, capitalism, culture and art, as well as an astoundingly profound way of approaching words on paper.  Perhaps only Henry Miller was so unusual an against-the-grain American writer.

The letters collected in this beautifully made volume were mostly written outside the United States, while Burroughs lived in Morocco and London, or was traveling.  At the time, Burroughs was experimenting with Brion Gysin with the cut-up method and with tape-recorded montages.  The letters reveal and astounding lucid Burroughs whose literary ambition and business acumen may come as a surprise to some.  They also reveal an acute judge of character in a man who is often thought of as freaky or dialed-out.  At least a few of these letters are to Burroughs’ son Billy, himself a tormented addict, and reveal Burroughs to be a distant but concerned and supportive father.  Many letters are to luminous figures like Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and the French publisher Maurice Girodias, to the doomed addict-writer Alex Trocci, and to American publishers like Barney Rosset of Grove Press.  The collection includes a selection of historical photographs and an excellent index of sources.

Fans of Burroughs, readers of Beat-literature, and literature enthusiasts in general will read “Rub out the Words” with great pleasure.