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Reel Life: the quintessential hipster

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Less famous (or notorious) than his friends William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, Herbert Huncke nonetheless holds a special place in the movement that reshaped American art and letters after World War II. It was Huncke who first gave the word "beat" its multidimensional meaning, which Ginsberg describes as "exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise."

This was in the mid-1940s, when Huncke was working Times Square as a prostitute and drug dealer. (It was he who introduced Burroughs to heroin, helping to begin an addiction that found landmark literary expression in Burroughs's nightmarish satire Naked Lunch.)

Huncke had come to New York in his late teens after growing up in Chicago, where he had acquired the interlocked habits of hustling and heroin. He otherwise supported himself as a merchant seaman, petty thief, and recruiter of interviewees for sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Occasionally he wrote, though not with the career-minded consistency of his pals. To them he represented the quintessential hipster, the supreme subterranean, the real thing.

Huncke's writings are crisp, candid reports from the lower depths, the streets and prison cells that Huncke called home in his younger days. (Today, at 78, he lives in the East Village and takes methadone to satisfy his addiction.) These writings were more than just artistic; in his autobiography, Guilty of Everything, he recalls conferring with his attorney after a drug bust: "What happened was exactly this. My lawyer advised me, because I told him I was compiling my writings presently into a journal to be published the following year, to make a statement to the effect that the purpose of my book was to have it act as a warning against using drugs. . . . I made the statement and apparently delivered the goods since the judge passed sentence of six months--suspended the sentence--and I walked out of the courtroom."

This weekend, Huncke returns to his old hometown for the first time in more than 60 years. He'll read from his work and introduce a screening of The Burning Ghat, a short film in which he stars. The movie, which won a Gold Plaque at the 1991 Chicago International Film Festival, was directed by two other ex-Chicagoans, Jerry Poynton and James Rasin, friends of Huncke's from the Greenwich Village scene; they'll be on hand to discuss the film. Also on the agenda is poet Jack Walls, who'll read from his book Bad Angel and who'll also introduce a screening of Eye to Eye, a short documentary on his late lover, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The evening begins at 7 at the Red Dog (above the Borderline Tap), 1958 W. North; doors open at 6:30, and there's a $5 cover. For more information, call 278-5138.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Graham.

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