Synopsis: In his debut novel, Junky, Burroughs fictionalized his experiences using and peddling heroin and other drugs in the 1950s into a work that reads like a field report from the underworld of post-war America. The Burroughs-like protagonist of the novel, Bill Lee, see-saws between periods of addiction and rehab, using a panoply of substances including heroin, cocaine, marijuana, paregoric (a weak tincture of opium) and goof balls (barbiturate), amongst others. For this definitive edition, renowned Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris has gone back to archival typescripts to re-created the author's original text word by word. From the tenements of New York to the queer bars of New Orleans, Junky takes the reader into a world at once long-forgotten and still with us today. Burroughs’s first novel is a cult classic and a critical part of his oeuvre.
Junky is a difficult novel to read, and it's even more difficult to review. It's a highly experimental novel -- with this book William S. Burroughs became one of the pioneers of the Beat Movement of the 1950s. The Beat Movement was characterized by experimental prose and edgy, taboo topics such as homosexuality and drug abuse. This book has all of those things in spades (not that I'm complaining, mind you). Because it is so experimental (and because I have almost no prior experience reading any Beat writers) I had a hard time getting my head around the whole thing. I had a hard time warming up to the first person narrator -- Burroughs stand-in Bill Lee -- but that is the point. This isn't a novel meant to be warm and inviting but instead it is meant to be cold and confusing -- off-putting enough to throw the reader off, making said reader come back for another read or two.
In essence, this book is a 150-page travelogue with lots of drug abuse, drug deals, and homosexuality. It's fascinating, impassioned stuff -- there are so many lines in the novel worth quoting I wouldn't even know where to begin -- but all the same, I always felt a slight disconnect from the story. None of the characters were sympathetic, and because the main character traveled from city to city and constantly found himself in new circles, it was hard to get to know any of the characters before they were whisked away, never to be seen again. After a while I stopped caring about who Bill associated himself with because I knew they would be gone within a chapter or two.
As far as Bill himself goes, he's a relatable enough guy. He's decently intelligent, a man who, like so many others, fell into drug use for no real reason -- it just happened. He one day woke up a junkie, and the novel is about his constant struggles to get off the junk, make money selling junk, and not get caught when he relapses and uses the junk again. The pattern becomes tedious after a while, but I suppose it is a worthwhile commentary on life in general and addiction in particular -- humans constantly do stupid things, and often for no good reason. We often fall into the same traps -- the traps we've fallen into so many times before -- and can't figure out how we got there.
I don't regret reading Junky, and I will definitely reread it one of these days. I feel it is meant to be experienced more than once. Perhaps I will pick up on more and come away with a higher opinion of it after a second read. Who knows? If you've never read William S. Burroughs (or any novelists from the Beat Movement, for that matter), you could do worse than starting here. It gets more right than it does wrong. The prose style is highly original; Burroughs makes it all his own. The writing in this novel intrigued me enough to order the sequel, Queer, which is now in the mail. I will be reading it very early in 2016, that's for sure. Despite my few hang-ups with this book, it's a highly experimental and memorable read, making for a very worthwhile commentary on the underground drug scene in post-WWII America. Read it if you want to try something new.