(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)


by Rachel Aviv

[Rachel Aviv, a freshmen at Brown University, offers this “creative nonfiction piece about William S. Burroughs.”]

On September 6, 1951, William S. Burroughs was bored.   With one hand he held a half-filled wine glass and with the other he flicked a dead fly off the arm of his chair.   Across the room in a stuffed chair, his wife, Joan Vollmer, drank gin with lemonade. Burroughs’s friends, Eddie Woods and Eugene Allerton were slouched on a sofa beside her, eyes glazed.  In the darkening room, the conversation was desultory, weighted down by hours of drinks.

As the room got darker and the conversation lulled, Burroughs reached down, opened up his travel bag and pulled out a loaded gun.  He slowly stroked the handle with two fingers, feeling the grains of its grip.  He slipped his index finger onto the trigger and then turned to his wife and said, “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell Act.”  

Neither Joan nor Burroughs had ever performed the William Tell Act, but Joan giggled anyway and balanced a six-ounce highball glass on top of her head. Burroughs pointed the pistol at the glass, and she turned her head smiling, “I can’t watch this, Bill you know I can’t stand the sight of blood.”

Eddie Woods felt heavy and tired, but it slowly dawned on him that Burroughs was going to pull the trigger and that if he hit the glass, there’d be shards and a hole in the wall.  He

The glass, intact, rolled around in perfect circles on the linoleum floor.  Blood snaked down the leg of Joan's chair

thought to reach for the gun, but then felt sick and then worried that the gun would mistakenly go off and hit Joan…and then bang, the sound broke through his thick fog.

The glass was intact on the linoleum floor, rolling around in perfect circles. Blood snaked down the leg of Joan’s chair.  Joan’s head had fallen to one side.  Her body was slumped in her chair. Burroughs dropped the gun.  He saw the straight hole through her temple and fell to his knees, screaming her name.

Allerton whimpered and ran out of the room to find a doctor.  Burroughs kneeled at Joan’s side screaming, “Talk to me, talk to me.”

An ambulance arrived and took Joan to the Red Cross Hospital not far from Orizaba, Mexico.  She was dead before the ambulance got there.  Inspecting the apartment, the police recorded a blood-splattered chair, three ashtrays on the floor, and on the table, four empty bottles of Oso Negro gin, ten dirty glasses and a Star .380 automatic.

*  *  *  

At the age of eight, William Burroughs, the boy who would later be described by Norman Mailer as “the only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed of genius,” began using guns.  His father took him duck shooting, they hid in the marshy ground, and then, as the ducks came out, they blasted away. One day when he couldn’t get his hands on a gun, he stole his nurse’s pincushion and plucked out all the pins.   

Clapping the pins in his sweaty palms, he approached his brother, Mort, and asked him to play.  At the instant Mort said no, Burroughs picked up the biggest pin and stabbed his brother in the forehead.

Burroughs was bored by family, friends, sports, and, except for one lesson about Hannibal’s campaign in Europe, schoolwork.  He spent his class time aiming his Eversharp pencil at various students, smacking his tongue to the roof of his mouth with each bullet fired.  Decades later, classmates remember the way their scalp prickled to see his pencil pointing at them.

At ten, Burroughs wrote his first novel, The Autobiography of a Wolf. With bloody language, he told the tale of a pitiful wolf who lost his mate to a pack of hungry hunters and then died a few days later when a grizzly bear devoured him.

Burroughs's mother, who was known around St. Louis for being clairvoyant, trumpeted the book to all her friends, promising them that Burroughs would be famous one day.  Her friends, a group of cocktail-partying, summer-homing aristocrats, promptly sat Burroughs down, defined autobiography and biography for him, and told him that he had made a simple, but correctable mistake.

Ten-year old Burroughs, stoic as usual, assured them that he knew what the words meant, and this story was about him.  After becoming a gobbled wolf, Burroughs lost interest in writing.  He tried being an exterminator, a private detective, a bartender, but finally settled down with the $200 check his parents sent him each month and did drugs.

During this time, he decided to be a Crow Indian tribe member, and for the initiation ceremony, he cut off his left pinky with Thanksgiving poultry shears:  Staring at himself in the mirror, composing his face into an expression of indifference, he placed the saw-toothed lower blade beneath the end joint of his left little finger.  He tightened his lips, took a deep breath, and pressed the handle quick and hard.  The tip of his finger fell on the dresser.  The mirror was blurry.   Blood spurted out of the stub and into his face. 

Calmly, he cleaned off his face and patted the stub with a handkerchief.   Then he picked up the finger joint, wrapped it in tissue, put it in his vest pocket and walked out of his hotel room. 

Perhaps becoming William Tell for a brief moment was another of Burroughs’ momentary identities.  But once Burroughs missed the glass, no matter how many drugs he sniffed, no matter how many identities he took on, he could not free himself from the image of Joan, turning her head, smiling in that hot, graying Mexican room.

At night, he woke up howling.  He covered himself with his hot, sweaty sheets and quietly moaned until, hours later, he sunk into a nightmarish doze.  In the day, he drank or snorted cocaine, forgetting to eat or to turn on the lights. 

In the introduction of Queer, the first novel Burroughs wrote after Joan’s death, he wrote:

The death of his wife
brought him in contact with
'the ugly spirit'

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.  The death of Joan brought me in contact with the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”

It was no excuse when Burroughs said that an ugly spirit possessed him to kill Joan.  Burroughs was a firm believer in sorcery: When he was young, he put a curse on a boy who had rejected him, and the boy got Meningitis. In New York, he put a curse on a friend who had bullied him and, a few days later, a drum of gasoline exploded and the boy’s hands blew off.     

With his portable typewriter, in his cheap motel room in whatever South American country was harvesting hallucinogens, Burroughs believed he could begin to atone for the curse he put on his wife.  In garbled sentences littered with “berserk tomato suctions” and “talking assholes,” he began to describe his nightmares, giving bits of himself to various protagonists.

To  Lee, in Queer, he gives the worst 

“Lee pulled out an old-fashioned .22 revolver he sometimes carried.  ‘Hold the son of a bitch out and I’ll blast it,’ he said, striking a Napoleonic pose.  The boy tied a string to the mouse’s tail and held it out at arm’s length.  Lee fired from a distance of three feet.  His bullet tore the mouse’s head off.”


                                                                   *  *  *                         

Few writers have ever captured on paper their id so completely, so exactly, as Burroughs.   Yet, there is something perversely luring about the drunken confessions of a wife-killing, cocaine sniffing, Harvard graduated rebel.  Burroughs is a cultural hero more than a writer.  Whether he was stoned or tripping or sweaty from nightmares, what he documented was his life and his life is the art.   ##  



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