A ponderous revisiting of the strange and terrible life of the godfather of America’s Beat movement.
In this strange season for literary biographies, we’ve already worked through J. Michael Lennon’s warm but thorough portrait of a combative Norman Mailer and the controversial and revelatory Salinger, by David Shields and filmmaker Shane Salerno. William Burroughs (1914–1997) is an equally bizarre figure whose hallucinatory and experimental works of art and unpredictable journey rained influence down the generations from Jack Kerouac to Kurt Cobain. This wedge of biographical examination is no less doorstop-worthy but hardly the definitive biography of the mad genius of Lawrence, Kan. First of all, Miles (In the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, 2011, etc.) carries some fairly weighty credibility, having known Burroughs and his contemporaries from 1965 on. However, the author has already exhaustively covered the Beat movement in numerous biographies, not least in William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible (1993). Here, it’s seldom that we hear that laconic drawl and snarling wit that Burroughs carried into old age, which is clearly missed. Instead, Miles goes down the well-worn path of meticulously tracking his subject through time and place instead of through attitude and output. Even the pivot point of the novelist’s life—the 1951 misadventure in Mexico during which Burroughs shot and killed his wife—elicits little in the way of emotional insight into that furious whirlwind. Answers from a man the author knew and interviewed many times could have changed the way Burroughs is painted; pointing instead to a confessional sliver of text from the Tom Waits collaboration The Black Rider is avoidance.
While segments about the writing of groundbreaking works like Naked Lunch and heroin-fueled binges in Tangiers and Paris are satisfyingly voyeuristic, the biography is ultimately neither sensational enough to court controversy nor keen enough to be useful to future scholars.