Junky was William S. Burroughs' first novel, written under the pseudonym William Lee and first published in 1953 as a cheap paperback. The publishing industry didn't know what else to do with it, so they acted like it was sensationalistic. It was only through the relentless efforts of Allen Ginsberg and Carl Solomon that it was published at all.

As Burroughs novels go, this one is something of a freak, in that it's not a freak. It's a coherent, lucid narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There's no bizarre imagery, no horrifying sexual acts, and no aliens. The tone is detached and journalistic; you might call it a series of press dispatches from a relatively mild but relentless Hell. He'll tell you how he felt at the time, but as he writes it he usually seems to have very little feeling about it at all.

The narrative describes Burroughs' initial involvement with morphine, his "descent into addiction", and a long period of life as a junkie: He shoots, he scores, he gets arrested, he spends time in jail and in the Federal narcotics facility in Lexington, Kentucky. He starts out in New York City, lives in New Orleans for a while, and finally moves to Mexico City. When he's off heroin, he goes on terrible drinking binges. He's a hunter-gatherer set loose in the twentieth century: He lives from moment to moment trying to scrounge money, looking for a dealer, and trying to avoid the police. He wants you to know what a genuinely pointless waste of a human life it all is.

"From ten thousand feet", it's a gray treadmill. While you're reading it, it's hard to put down (assuming you don't mind reading about all this miserable stuff). He has an endless series of sordid little adventures with an endless succession of marginal characters, both the hard-core lifers (many of whom can be trusted not to squeal when arrested) and the less desperate "tourists" from Greenwich Village and the like (who in his view can never be trusted at all). He studies the character of these people intensely. Part of that is an interest in the human animal, but more of it is survival: Life outside the law can be precarious, and when you trust the wrong people you end up in jail. You may end up in jail anyway, but you can improve the odds.

Inevitably, it's episodic. There's very little "plot" aside from a general progression downwards. The episodes are interesting and the characters are interesting, but in the end it all adds up to the big zero that Burroughs says it does. Why'd he bother living all of this? Because he was a junkie. That's what junkies do. It's not optional.



The following is reproduced by request from Pedro's superseded writeup. If there are any errors, they were no doubt introduced by myself in copying it. Thanks also to Pedro for prodding me (in a nice way) to add more information about how it found its way into print.

Not wanting his family to know he had written such a nasty book (they supported him financially), Burroughs assumed his mother's maiden name, Lee. "Junky" by William Lee was forgotten soon after publication, and rediscovered after "Naked Lunch" made Burroughs famous.

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