American memoirist, 1947-1981.

William S. Burroughs, Jr. was the son of the William S. Burroughs you've heard of. His mother, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, died accidentally in 1951 in Mexico City at the hand of his father. She was a benzedrine addict. Burroughs, Jr. -- "Billy" to his dad -- spent most of his childhood in the care of his grandparents1 in St. Louis, MO and Palm Beach, FL. At the age of fourteen, WSB Jr. lived briefly in Tangiers, Morocco with his father2. For a portrait of the Burroughs family while Joan Vollmer Burroughs was still alive, see the Old Bull Lee episode in Kerouac's On the Road.

WSB Jr. wrote three memoirs, billed as novels: Speed, Kentucky Ham, and -- reputedly -- Pakriti Junction. The first two were published posthumously in 1984; the last apparently hasn't been published at all.

He died in Florida from the failure of a transplanted liver, his first liver having succumbed to alcoholism and other abuse.

Speed covers his adolescent adventures as an amphetamine addict in New York City, with a slice of Palm Beach at each end.

Kentucky Ham covers the time in Tangiers, a sentence served at the Federal Narcotics Farm in Lexington, KY, and a trip to Alaska spent working on a crab boat. The old junky inmates at Lexington pronounce "heroin" as "heron", and speak of "King Heron" more or less apostrophically. I'm reminded of Don Gately in Infinite Jest when he remembers demerol withdrawal in a jail cell in similar terms: "Abiding with the Bird", "The Cold Bird"3. It's ironic but probably inevitable that a source of such acute and utterly senseless human misery should inspire such grim and lovely language.

Pakriti Junction is said to have been left in such a fragmentary state that nobody was able to get it together for publication. The grim truth is that WSB Jr. isn't considered a significant figure in his own right, he's not his dad, and we're unlikely to see a whole lot of effort going into his work. By my count, he's dismally underrated.

Speed and Kentucky Ham are not worth reading because of he author's father; they are worth reading because they are very clear, lucid, readable accounts of events best kept at arm's length. As a writer, WSB Jr. bears little resemblance to his father: There's no hallucination, no strange creatures, no explicit sex. If anything, he reminds me of Jim Carroll, but with a colder and more cynical eye and no sympathy for himself. That may be WSB Jr.'s great charm, beyond his facility with the language: He has almost no sympathy for himself at all.

1 These, incidentally, are the Burroughses of the adding machine company which went into computers and was sucked into the series of mergers which ultimately gave the world Unisys.

2 If you don't know why William S. Burroughs might have wanted to live in Tangiers, you're probably too young to be told.

3 Our cold, cruel, and ancient feathered friend here brings us very near to The Sons of the Bird in Robert Heinlein's "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", which has nothing to do with narcotics at all (though you could read it in a number of ways . . .)