Tuesday, April 5, 2016

JunkyJunky by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I have learned the junk equation. 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."

William S. Burrough's Junky (1953) - a classic of the "addiction literature" genre - is my first book of this author, one the most famous writers of the so-called Beat Generation. The original title was "Junk", and the book was also published under the current spelling "Junkie". This is a strongly autobiographical text so, in a sense, it would be valid to categorize it as close to non-fiction. The book describes the everyday activities related to the opioid (morphine and heroin) drug habit: getting junk, shooting junk, selling junk - or committing small crime - to earn money to buy junk.

The narrator briefly presents his early life, from his birth in 1914, through school, college, to being drafted and then rejected by the Army on the basis of some history of mental illness. We then follow the junkie's life from his getting hooked on morphine in 1944 until the late 1940s. The narrator's story very closely follows the actual events of Mr. Burrough's life, but the author does not spend much time on non-drug-related events: after all work and family are marginal to the junky way of life.

The dispassionate, clinical observations of various aspects of a junkie's life are the best feature of the book. We learn about the effects of different drugs on the mind and body of the user, about the addict's "junk sickness" suffering - the agony of withdrawal, and about the sweetest pleasure of relief when the junkie's body finally "drinks from the needle" again. We read about the minute details of drug pushing activities, when a small-time junkie sells single doses of opiates to other junkies. We learn about the efforts to set the "reduction schedule" for "tapering off", efforts that always fail yet are never given up. We follow the junkies when they "work the lushes" - steal money from sleeping drunkards in parks, trains, and stations. The account of the narrator's therapy in the Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison - where he checked in himself - is particularly interesting.

The author does not offer any moral judgments and does not try to submit excuses for the drug habit. The addiction is a fact of life and even if the junkie - at a cost of terrible suffering - manages to go "off junk", we know it is most likely only for a short while: a few weeks or few months; eventually most junkies will again experience the deep orgasm of the morphine or heroin shot.

I am not in the least interested in the topic of drug abuse but I appreciate the detached nature of the author's account, which often reads almost like a research paper on drug addiction. There are several passages in the book, though, that do not fit the rest of the text, for instance the elegiac portrayal of the Rio Grande Valley or the "economic lessons" about vanishing middle class and the contrast between the haves and the have nots. While I do not particularly care for Junky I am still planning to read the author's most famous work, Naked Lunch. One more quote from the book is shown after the rating.

Two and a half stars.

"A junky runs on junk time. When his junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junk time to start. A sick junkie has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait."

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