WILLIAM BURROUGHS' myth-making paper trail publicly ends right here, with a scrap of journal dated July 30, 1997:

"Love? What is it? Most natural pain killer what there is. LOVE."

A curious bit of sweetness, coming from one of literature's greatest misanthropes--but then again, Burroughs isn't talking about human love. He's mooning over his cats. "Only thing can resolve conflict is love," he writes, "like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love."

The sentiment--with its juxtapositions of desire and loathing synthesized through an achingly unmet need--is classic Burroughs, eliciting startled, nervous laughter, followed by a sadness that somehow deepens the hilarity. Behind the feline humor lurks a sense of betrayal burned clean, the indirect joke is miserably funny, in the same way that Swift, Juvenal, and Chaplin are miserably funny. Burroughs' punch lines are as unforgiving as a noose snapping tight on the downswing, and their gleeful execution illuminates the darkest aspects of poetic justice. It is just this type of hangman's comedy that runs through Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs.

Ten months before his death, Burroughs was furnished with a stack of blank, bound notebooks by his longtime companion and manager, James Grauerholz. (Increasingly severe arthritis had made sustained typing impossible.) Death was so close that Burroughs could taste it, and this only served to sharpen his concerns: he hastens to resolve the interlocking themes that always obsessed him. What makes these journals so excruciatingly poignant is that Burroughs' themes have always, in one way or another, focused on the nature of death itself, as both an endpoint and a springboard, a closure which might just be a beginning. On this subject, Burroughs' feelings are once again made clear through negative reference: "What is it that shines from the eyes of an atheist when he says: 'When I die, I will be all the way dead?' Like it gives them some special grinning satisfaction?"

In other entries, the proximity of death abolishes any but the most immediate physical considerations. "Who lives will see," Burroughs writes, repeating one of his pet maxims (while also giving himself a subtle pat on the back for his stunning longevity). He goes on, "Way I feel now, don't know whether to call a doctor or the undertaker. It isn't good." His eyes are wide open, and he knows exactly what he's looking at. More than any other writer of the 20th century, Burroughs was capable of detaching from his own suffering only to get nearer to it; his seemingly dispassionate, almost extraterrestrial observations are gleaned from highly personal truths. Last Words finds Burroughs putting those truths through the ultimate wringer of mortal reckoning; his rigorous self-examinations are both courageous and heartbreaking. They also work to elucidate and punctuate the theories which have informed Burroughs' fictional mythology--one of the strangest, yet most consistent and revelatory, to find its way into mainstream literature. His evolution as the great crank philosopher of modern fiction has come full circle.

Of course, Burroughs also loved to pick a fight, and he keeps himself busy skewering habitual enemies (whether they be dangerous ideas, hypocritical individuals, or the collective stupidity of the human race) right to the end. His satire is as witheringly hilarious as ever, though here it's acquired a heightened elegiac tone. As his life draws rapidly to a close, the apocalyptic outrage is tempered by a deepening resignation, which makes Burroughs' prophetic admonitions all the more urgent. He wields his scathing wit against all the "lying, worthless bastards" with the icy poise of an expert assassin. The so-called War on Drugs--which Burroughs considers a manufactured hysteria, a "degree of chaos to justify an all-out war on dissent"--gets him particularly hot under the collar. He refers to the DEA as an "ill-intentioned and downright evil cluster of fiends."

(Imagine your grandfather talking like this.)

But ultimately, it is the surprisingly touching expressions of pathos that make Last Words such a moving auto-epitaph to Burroughs' oeuvre. "Unpleasant feeling of no meaning to me," Burroughs writes on November 30, 1996. "Just floating by." At another point he recalls "old unhappy far-off things, and battles long ago." Images of combat recur throughout all of Burroughs' books; in these journals, they are tinged by nostalgia and remorse. After waging so many psychic battles, the lonely old intergalactic soldier comes face to face with his final challenge, and so he takes a long, sad look backwards at lost time. "Well," he writes, chastising himself, "you should have thought of these things. I did. Thinking is not enough. Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience--any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, No Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict."

Then he remembers his cats.

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