The ‘drug novel’ has been prevalent throughout literature; particularly with the mention of opium dens seen in nineteenth century novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821). However, these novels were written at a time when opium was medicalised and being used for the treatment of minor ailments. Now, users are deemed sick, deviant or insane. William S. Burroughs’ novel Junky depicts the life of a heroin addict in a raw, unapologetic style that perhaps sparked a little controversy in the way it talks about a subject that was thought of as taboo.
I find this novel particularly interesting as it was Burroughs’ first novel and is written in a totally different style to his later works in which he uses the experimental cut-up technique to tell his stories. This involves writing out a sentence or paragraph, cutting it up and placing it in a different order in which one might find a different meaning. This is used in his third novel Naked Lunch (1959) which also depicts the life of a heroin addict, however, Junky’s semi-autobiographical style and point-blank descriptions of heroin abuse brings the reader down to earth and gives a simple understanding of the rather unglamorous life of a drug-addict.
William Lee, Junky’s protagonist, begins with a prologue, by describing his comfortable upbringing; by his upper-class parents in their comfortable house, with its ‘high wooden fence’ and large front ‘lawn’ in the Midwest Suburb. All signposts lead to the set up of the idealistic American home however, as William tells, it is ‘gone forever’; either through the onslaught of World War Two or William’s rebellious fall into addiction.
After copping out of the army because of his ‘nut-house’ record, William flits between different jobs and experiments with crime for the pure thrill of it. It is as this time that he comes into contact with ‘Junk’ and his fall into heroin begins.
This book, I’d suggest, is not big on plot, however, I don’t believe that is the point of it. Burroughs’ writing is simplistic yet his descriptions of the decaying post-war America, leave this novel akin to post-apocalyptic novels of the same era; The Day of the Triffid’s (1951) or I am Legend. (1954)
‘One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores on forty-second street… Weeds were growing up through the cracks in the pavement. There was no one in sight.’ (Burroughs, 1953)
These hallucinations that occur during morphine injections, open William’s eyes up to the decaying social and moral values of American society. This was written at a time during the Cold War; America’s fear of communism and Soviet Russia threatened the ideology of the American Dream. Burroughs suggests perhaps that junk is a way to view the world as it really is. Furthermore, Burroughs raises concern over the medical system in America; the rut that addicts find themselves in are often due to corrupt doctors and a lack of understanding from the medical fields.
Despite its seemingly ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ style, there is a lot to say about this novel. The Pengiun Modern Classics addition offers an Introduction to William S. Burroughs and includes various appendices written by Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Carl Solomon – all major figures within the beat generation. Burroughs is not trying to glamorise drug-use or threaten kids vulnerable to this sort of life. Instead, he attempting to demystify heroin addiction and like a lot of drug literature, is has most certainly held its prevalence all the way into todays society.