Junky by William S. Burroughs

This post contains spoilers.

Junk wins by default.

William Burroughs’s novel Junky (originally published under the pen name William Lee) is a stark and honest account of the life of a heroin addict. Drawn in part from his own life-long relationship with junk, Burroughs describes in matter-of-fact detail the realities of addiction. Junky is an attempt to explain – as can only be explained by someone who has walked the path – why junk addicts become addicted, why they have a relationship with junk for life (no matter how many times they quit), and what the all-consuming world of junk is really about.

Junky begins with a prologue written by Burroughs – an attempt (requested by the publishers) to explain how a ‘normal’ citizen from a stable family becomes an addict. In this prologue Burroughs describes his upbringing in the American suburbs as a “comfortable capsule” that he found stifling. He went to a top university (“one of the Big Three”) and hated it. After graduating he “drifted around Europe” for a while, before being drafted into the Army, which he escaped on a “nut-house record”. Burroughs was living off a trust, receiving one hundred and fifty dollars a month, and did not have to work. Nevertheless he tried a “variety of jobs” and eventually came into contact with the criminal world. “It seemed a romantic extravagance”, Burroughs writes, “to jeopardize my freedom by some token act of crime”. It was around this time that he first became hooked on junk, seemingly out of want of anything better to do. “You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default”.

Junky follows a fictional character known as Mr. Lee from his first experience with drug addiction. Through this character’s experiences as an addict and a dealer, Junky attempts to explain the world of addiction and all the characters (and “jive talk”) that go with it. The novel describes in detail what junk is (opium and its derivatives, such as morphine and heroin, with heroin being the strongest), and how it is used. Mr. Lee’s life is consumed by drugs – starting with an addiction, then looking for a fix, finding money for a fix, dealing junk to get money for a fix, deciding to quit and going through the agony of junk sickness, before starting another addiction. Junky follows Mr. Lee from New York to New Orleans, from New Orleans to Mexico City – in each place he quickly discovers and becomes immersed in the junk underworld.

While Junky is, on the one hand, a straightforward and factual account of junk and its effects, it is also peppered with poetic observations and insights. These moments flesh out the novel and invest the reader in the characters and the story. In New Orleans, for example, Mr. Lee describes the traffic, pointing out that the “drivers orient themselves largely by the use of their horns, like bats”. And later in the novel the narrator recalls a dream in which he and his friends have developed a chlorophyll habit, and “are turning into plants”. It is Burroughs’s simple but beautiful style that turns a novel that would otherwise be little more than a descriptive account of heroin addiction into great literature.

Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.

Burroughs’s description of the life of an addict is in some ways bleak and depressing (though the narrator seldom expresses self-pity or denounces his addiction). It is full of dangerous petty crime, fear of police and informers (known as “pigeons”), nausea, and worry about finding the next fix. But Junky can also be read as a metaphor for life in general – a constant struggle to keep living, not necessarily to get “high” or happy,  but just to survive. The main character in Junky searches for meaning in addiction in the same way other people seek it in religion, family, or work. When the novel ends Mr. Lee is still searching, looking for a new drug – “yage” – to help him see “things from a special angle”. He is hoping, he admits, that yage will give him what he couldn’t find in junk – “Yage may be the final fix”.

Junky is a matter-of-fact look at the life of an addict; an attempt to describe to the non-addict what life is like in this parallel universe of addiction, what lies behind those drawn faces and pock-marked arms. But it is also a more metaphysical look at life itself, the way we live it, and what we are all, in the end, searching for.

William S. Burroughs, Junky, Penguin, 1977.

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