There are two Burroughses. One is fascinating, the other one not so much. One is like a creature from another world; the other has the originality of an artist who finds middle-class values to be suffocating and dadaism to be liberating. The first Burroughs can do something as basic as walking down a street, or as empty as staring at you with those bleary and old eyes, or as banal as singing a popular tune from back in the day while doing some chore or other in a small apartment, and yet he never for a moment loses his grip on your attention. The other Burroughs is the one we find in the pages of his books (of which there are too many), and also his readings—desk on a stage, lamp over papers, flat words flowing out of a mouth whose lips barely part. The sad truth (for some) is that Burroughs is just far more fascinating as a person—as a body, as clothes on that body, as a being at rest or in motion—than as a writer.
William S. Burroughs, of course, was an American novelist in the inner circle of the mid-century Beat movement. He took lots of heavy drugs, and shot his wife in the head when, according to him and witnesses, his aim failed to hit a glass placed on her head during some dark game in a bar. They were both drunk. Some close to him say that it was the tragedy that jump-started his writing career. He suddenly got serious about life, and the pages began flying from his typewriter. Burroughs was also gay, and had a sexual relationship with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, with whom he desired one of the most beautiful novelists to ever walk the earth, Jack Kerouac. In the trinity of the beats, Ginsberg is the Holy Ghost, Kerouac the Son, and Burroughs the Father. Still, judging from his emergence as a pop icon in the '90s, and extrapolating from his appearance in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and from David Cronenberg's brilliant film adaptation of Naked Lunch, there was far more life in Burroughs off the page than on.
Now let's turn to a moment early in the engaging 1983 documentary Burroughs: The Movie, directed by Jim Jarmusch's classmate Howard Brookner and showing this week at the Grand Illusion. The author is revisiting his childhood home in St. Louis. He is strolling with a cane. The neighborhood is leafy. And the house once owned by his family is huge and made of brick. Burroughs mentions (or mumbles—he never really talks) something about the art of calling toads and also about how the son of his parents' black gardener played the violin. Later, he is interviewed in a living room with this gardener, who appears to have retired. Burroughs brings up the gardener's son. What happened to him? He used to play violin, the gardener confirms, but he also died young in the early '50s. Burroughs never explains why he was so interested in the violinist. We can only guess it was his first crush.
Nevertheless, you will find nothing in Junky, Burroughs's most famous book, and the only one I can honestly say I was able to finish (it was loaned to me by a junkie who lived in the flat above mine during the time I spent in Docklands in London, 1988), half as compelling as watching Burroughs talk with the father of the dead violinist.