Call Me Burroughs: A Life
I met William Burroughs. I was working on Laurie Anderson’s concert film, Home of the Brave --- and someone had to drive the venerable Beat genius home after he completed his short stint as a performer in the movie. The segment was “Language is a Virus,” a song Anderson wrote specifically for Burroughs using his own words to express her strange and compelling thoughts about communication. So I drove a quiet, old and stoned William Burroughs back into the city from our set in Union City, New Jersey. I can say, without further ado, that there was a certain gravity in the atmosphere surrounding the writer.
But if you hadn’t known who he was before you met him, you never would’ve believed that the life recounted in CALL ME BURROUGHS by Barry Miles had been lived by this unassuming old man in the immeasurably old-fashioned suit, carrying a cane to steady his aging self. He earned that unsteadiness in adventures beyond those most of us will ever experience in our lifetimes. And Miles catches it all for you in his big, beautiful black and white tome.
"...a fully-realized history of a great American literary figure, one for whom scandal was a comfortable bedfellow and to whom words were the greatest balm ever created."
There’s NAKED LUNCH. There’s the Beat poets. There’s Africa and Mexico and the time at Harvard. The end years in Lawrence, Kansas. The Cronenberg movie made from his most famous novel. There are the cut-ups and Joan and the arrow and relationships with Lucien Carr, Kerouac and Brion Gysin. CALL ME BURROUGHS gives such a blow-to-blow account of the many guises of Burroughs --- the writer, the provocateur, the gay icon, the poster boy of the Beats, the heir to the fortune that never was, the father of the writer, the inspiration of Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain --- that you would expect the book to weigh 400 pounds and have its own zip code. But Miles makes choices --- he doesn’t overdo the parts that everyone already knows and doesn’t underdo the end of Burroughs’s life, when so much was still going on, at least in his still-active mind.
This is a great American story --- of a man who reinvents himself and his field so many times that the story can never dig into a groove. It has to keep moving, sauntering from one misadventure to another, and Miles has just the right style to pack it all in, but make it appealing to those who don’t already bow at the altar of the Beat god. CALL ME BURROUGHS manages to make itself completely relevant in the Beat pantheon of origin tales by bringing to light never-before-published interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Carr and Burroughs himself. It is a fully-realized history of a great American literary figure, one for whom scandal was a comfortable bedfellow and to whom words were the greatest balm ever created.
It is amazing, in this time of multi-tasking, to consider how Burroughs accomplished so much under the influence of so many different vices. CALL ME BURROUGHS is a primer for anyone interested in how the bad habits and good work of this man have altered the landscape of the word-hungry world we live in today. Burroughs’s place in the pantheon of world literary genius has already been well-established. This book will help explain why to those who may not know yet what this humble-looking man managed to wrest out of a messy and dramatic life.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 31, 2014