News & Politics » Essay

Friends of Bill

by

1 comment

In the popular imagination William S. Burroughs was to have died with a syringe hanging out of his arm, sprawled in the nearly windowless apartment in New York's Bowery that he'd nicknamed the Bunker. He spent his last two decades exploiting the grim, gray junkie persona of his best-known novel, Naked Lunch, and enjoying his stature as a forefather of the counterculture. But when Burroughs died August 2 of a heart attack at age 83 (proving that there's no substitute for clean living), he was a longtime resident of Lawrence, Kansas, a college town of about 50,000 midway between Topeka and Kansas City. He had moved there in 1981 at the suggestion of his young companion and manager, James Grauerholz, and during his last 15 years he lived in a small white clapboard house on a tree-lined residential street. After a nomadic existence that had taken him from Saint Louis to New York to New Orleans to Mexico to South America to Tangier to Paris to London and back to America, Burroughs chose to spend his last days as a midwestern country gentleman, surrounded by his books, his cats, and his guns.

By the time I was 23, I'd spent many a night hiding from my tedious day job in the pages of Burroughs's fiction. A friend knew a woman in Lawrence who kept house for the aging writer, and buoyed by her description of Burroughs as a relatively benign old man, my friend and I dared each other into driving out to pay our respects and get a couple of books autographed. So, a little over ten years ago, I took a Saturday evening train out to Galesburg, where my friend lived, and we left town at midnight, speeding southwest across Burroughs's native Missouri and rolling into Lawrence at nine Sunday morning. We knew Burroughs's street address and crept past the one-story house on Learnard Avenue, but even after our all-night journey we had enough sense not to knock on his door unannounced. Instead we looked up the address and phone number for William Burroughs Communications, and after reaching an answering machine decided to drive over to the office in person.

"The office" turned out to be a small, ramshackle house with a gravel driveway, its backyard cluttered with discarded bathtubs and other junk. We knocked on the door and were greeted by a young man in his bathrobe. We managed to state our business and, embarrassed now, apologized for the early hour: our lack of sleep and the enormity of our mission had left us a bit deranged, obscuring any notion that people might want to be left alone on a Sunday morning. But the young man took our request in stride. He introduced himself as Michael Emerton; as it turned out, he was James Grauerholz's boyfriend. By this time it was nearly ten, so Michael called Burroughs and arranged to escort us over to the house at noon. My friend's friend was putting us up, so we showered at her place and I tried to grab a nap, without success. At the appointed hour we returned to Burroughs Communications and followed James and Michael to Learnard Avenue.

Climbing the steps to Burroughs's front porch, I couldn't believe that a major figure in American letters was allowing two strange kids into his home. Years later on a Web page I found a message he had posted inviting readers to come visit him; in fact he must have felt quite isolated in this staid, middle-class community. Young guests were one reason he moved out of New York: the Bunker, two blocks from the rock club CBGB, had become a magnet for adoring punks who got Burroughs hooked on heroin again in the late 70s. After Burroughs cleaned up, Grauerholz convinced him to move to Lawrence: James knew the town from his days as a student, and Burroughs wanted to live somewhere he could afford. "I know you think of Kansas as Nowheresville and think I am caught up in nostalgia," Burroughs wrote a friend in Paris. "Really it is the other way around. The whole concept of place is dead and it's nostalgia to cling to it."

But nostalgia or not, the move reconnected Burroughs to his painful boyhood as the closeted gay son of a respectable Saint Louis family. His next novel, The Place of Dead Roads, reimagined the Wild West as the birthplace of a freer, more libertarian America, and its gunslinging hero, Kim Carsons, was a semiautobiographical character who shared his author's troubled youth. No other book allowed Burroughs a better vehicle for his memories of the midwest or his poker-faced, cracker-barrel humor. Reading it, I recognized Burroughs as the postmodern Mark Twain--not the cloying, crowd-pleasing Twain of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (though Kim Carsons was a queer version of Tom) but the dark, misanthropic Twain of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Mysterious Stranger.

"William?" Michael called as he opened the screen door and led us inside. Burroughs had been puttering around the kitchen at the back of the house; he padded into the living room, his mouth bent into a pained smile, and shook hands as Michael introduced us. His head had grown balder since any photograph I'd seen and was bare on top but for a tuft of gray at the widow's peak that gave him the appearance of a wizened old rooster. His bright blue eyes were exceedingly clear and well focused; taking his hand, I had the unsettling impression that he was reading my thoughts.

James went over a few business matters with Burroughs and, satisfied that my friend and I weren't lunatics, left to run some errands. "Come on in," said Burroughs. His house was small but tidy. The front room contained a wooden table and a bookshelf stocked with science fiction titles, Conrad novels, and hardcover editions of some of Burroughs's books. Several canes stood in the corner by the front door. A small standing shelf jutted from one wall, separating the front room from the den; atop the shelf sat a telephone, an ancient dictograph, a copy of TV Guide, and a cardboard box labeled "Queer manuscript." He led us into the den: "Sit down, sit down, make yourselves comfortable." In one corner stood a small television, in another a table flanked by wooden straight chairs. Fanned out on a coffee table were copies of Knife, Gun Digest, and several other magazines. I read later that he'd furnished the house from garage sales and second-hand stores. My friend sat down on a beaten-up olive chair positioned just under the room's only window, while I chose a large vinyl armchair.

Burroughs offered us tea and retreated into the kitchen to prepare it as we made conversation with Michael, who attended the university but couldn't decide on a major. I snuck a look past the counter that separated the den from the kitchen. Burroughs moved swiftly and economically as he fixed the tea; though his shoulders were slightly stooped, he was remarkably agile for a 73-year-old man, his legs skinny but strong. He wore a mustard-colored shirt with a wide collar, a sleeveless brown tartan pullover, a pair of gray woolen slacks, and beaten hush puppies. Dishes of cat food were positioned at various places on the floor, and a litter box was set against one wall, but the linoleum was littered with food and the occasional cat turd.

He served us our tea and crossed to the window behind the sofa. "Michael, did James tell you the people next door are selling their house?" He lifted the drape and peered out. "There's a woman out there right now, showing the place. God knows who or what might move in there. I hope they don't bring any dogs." He let the drape fall and grimaced at us. "A friend of mine on the outskirts of town has quite a vicious dog. I think a person takes a great responsibility on himself when he owns an animal like that."

Finally Burroughs sat down rather shyly in a straight chair by the table, stirred three spoonfuls of sugar into his tea, and took a sip. My friend asked if he could smoke and lit a Marlboro; Burroughs located a pack of Players Navy Cut cigarettes and helped himself to one (the triple-bypass surgery that would force him to quit was still four years away). An army flak jacket hung on the other straight chair, and a few manila folders were stacked beside a portable typewriter. He had been answering correspondence. What sort of stuff did he get, fan letters? "Yes, some of it," he replied. "I don't answer every letter, by any means. Some of it is questions about my books. One fellow wrote me with an idea for doing musical cut-ups, collages of musical texts. I've written him a fairly lengthy reply." He picked up a folder stuffed with papers. "A lot of it goes in the Flatly Insane file."

We asked about reports that Naked Lunch was being made into a movie, but the project was stalled. "It's the same old deal," he groused. "I get these people saying, 'Oh, we're going to spend ten million, twenty million,' and then the next week I can't even get in to see the person." We asked him if he was familiar with David Lynch, who had just directed Blue Velvet. Though a Vanity Fair with a profile of Lynch lay on the coffee table in front of us, Burroughs had never heard the name; he knew The Elephant Man only as a play starring his friend David Bowie. "I don't go out much to movies," he said. "The last thing I saw was this movie--Brazil? Now, I couldn't get a good idea of the movie because the sound was very bad where I saw it. But I couldn't understand it. 'What are they torturing him for? He doesn't know anything.' Anyway, it's my contention that the best books turn out to be the worst movies. Take "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"--Hemingway's greatest story. In the movie they tack a happy ending on it, have some plane flying in with penicillin, which wasn't even invented yet."

My friend had been staring at a sculpture resting atop one of the bookcases; it was a sheet of plywood about three by four feet. A cluster of small holes showed the striations of the wood. He asked Burroughs if the sculpture was an abstraction or if it represented a city. Burroughs squinted at the plywood. "No, that's a piece of wood I shot with my gun!" We laughed. "Yep, shot it from about 30 paces with my 12-gauge." He invited us out back to look at more of his shotgun art. His screened-in porch was cluttered with pieces of damaged wood; he had fixed tubes of oil paint onto them and blasted away, splattering the paint across the board. For one he had hung a can of spray paint over the board and blown it to bits, leaving a gaseous spray of red. In one corner stood a wooden straight chair peppered with buckshot; a gallon can of house paint had been placed on the seat and blasted at close range, the dried paint affixing the can to the chair. Burroughs brought out his 12-gauge, holding it tightly against his side. He sighted an imaginary target and pulled the trigger: SNAP! "Yeah," he drawled, admiring the gun, "it's a real alley sweeper."

At this point I began to feel that we were being indulged: Howard Brookner's 1983 documentary famously depicts Burroughs showing off his weapons. And I couldn't help but notice that many of his remarks were repeated almost verbatim from his writings--the spiel about Hemingway, in particular, I remembered from an essay in The Adding Machine. Of course a good writer takes time to craft his words and will reach for them naturally when expressing the same thought, like someone groping in the dark for his glasses. But he did seem to be trotting out a canned version of himself, obliging us with colorful stories to take home.

Not that we deserved better; a less generous man would have met us at the door, scrawled his name across our books, and told us to go. But I thought of this performance later when Burroughs became even more visible, acting in the movie Drugstore Cowboy, making records with Kurt Cobain and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and finally leasing his words and image to Nike for a TV commercial. By turning himself into a popular persona he won some well-deserved attention, but he also demeaned and marginalized his writing, which had become even more complex and ambitious in the early 80s. The number of people who will read Cities of the Red Night and The Place of Dead Roads is a slender fraction of those who saw Burroughs in a music video for Ministry, viewed secondhand on Beavis and Butthead. "That old dude is cool!" declares Butthead.

Burroughs took us out into his backyard. It was small, with a wire fence separating it from the field behind it. "That's my land all the way back," he said proudly. "The whole parcel is almost an acre." He was growing a few rows of vegetables, but most of the field was empty. He bent down to inspect a large hole that had been torn in the fence. "Probably a raccoon. We get a lot of them around here. Although it could have been a dog." The idea of a dog threatening his precious cats seemed to make him nervous, and he led us back into the house. He cracked the door to his bedroom, which was off to one side of the den. Inside on a king-size bed were curled two pudgy cats. Ginger was an orange-brown stray he had found on his porch years ago, Calico one of her kittens. Burroughs stroked Ginger roughly with his long, stiff hand. "Yes, yessss," he cooed; the cat closed its eyes and purred. I struggled to reconcile the nightmarish Interzone of Naked Lunch with this old man stooped over his bed, talking mush to his darling cats.

We stayed a while longer, but the conversation ground to a halt. I remembered reading once that when Burroughs tired of someone he tried to visualize them outside the room, and I suspected he was doing the same now. When I suggested we'd stayed long enough, he was visibly grateful. He signed a book for each of us and escorted us outside. "Come back anytime, anytime," he said, smiling his tight-lipped smile. He waved as we drove off, then he headed into the next yard to retrieve one of his cats.

Later that year Burroughs published his last novel, The Western Lands. It was steeped in the mythology of ancient Egypt, with its magical felines and its uncertain quest for immortality. "The Pilgrimage to the Western Lands has started," he announces, "the voyage through the Land of the Dead. Waves of exhilaration sweep the planet, awash in seas of silence. There is hope and purpose in these faces, and total alertness, for this is the most dangerous of all roads, for every pilgrim must meet and overcome his own death." Now Burroughs has begun his pilgrimage, shedding not only the hipster junkie and Kim Carsons and all his other fictional personae but the mortal vessel that carried him through this life. I never presumed that the hour I spent in his company brought me any closer to him than the books still lining my shelves, but I hope he makes it to the Western Lands. I can still see him standing in his yard, his arm raised high over his head, waving good-bye.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Archer Prewitt.

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment