BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs

The Wild BoysThe Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a work of the Beat novelist best known for “The Naked Lunch.” It’s one of those dystopian novels (like “1984”) that makes for a strange read because the date of the hugely transformed world which it envisions has come and gone with nothing close to it so far. [To be fair, it was written in the late 60’s, first published in the early 70’s, and imagines the world in 1988, but – also – I don’t think this is meant to be our universe.] The world it imagines is one in which hedonistically homoerotic gangs of young men are taking over the world, literally. When they aren’t engaged with staggering amounts of masturbation and intercourse, these “Wild Boys” are a force to be reckoned with because of their penchant for violence and mind-altering drugs.

As I’ve heard said of other works by Burroughs, his drug-fueled writing creates a work that has flashes of brilliance but also tracks where it’s not at all clear where the book is going — if anywhere. Some of the language is poetic and the description fascinating in its surreal psychedelicness. On the other hand, it also manages to make ostensibly thrilling subjects like sex and violence tedious both by dragging along with them till a rut forms and by offering the reader indistinct characters. When I’d gotten to the end, I thought it interesting that there were no named characters, but when I flipped through I saw that there were several recurring named characters, they just didn’t develop any life of their own. Certainly, all the wild boys seem like sex-driven versions of the Borg from “Star Trek” – meaning they are indistinguishable because they have the same motive (in the case of the wild boys: 90% sexual release / 10% fight) and they all behave identically. A number of the other characters are similarly boxed caricatures, e.g. the righteous and naïve military officer.

About two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, the book has an interesting and comedic sequence in which we find out that America intends to save the day and rid the world of these packs of “deviants.” There is support among local communities from Mexico to Marrakesh — as one would expect from normal people tired of roving gangs of jock-strap covered, knife-wielding youths taking over their cities. At any rate, this seems to be a metaphor for the Vietnam War. We have these high-ranking officers who are under the impression that their technological and resource superiority – but especially their moral superiority – will grant them a quick victory over the primitive and morally bankrupt enemy. As with Vietnam, they are proven wrong.

This is a bizarre book and kind of hard to rate. It begins with an intriguing start in Mexico, but I’m not sure where that line went. It has a long period of drag that reminded me of Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” in that it just becomes so bogged down in hedonism that it manages to make it tiresome. Then this battle line opens up, and that is fascinating and amusing.

As for recommendations, I imagine there is the widest possible set of views on this book, from those who despise it to those who find it to be a masterpiece of a novel. Hopefully, I’ve presented enough for you to make up your own mind about which class you are likely to fall into.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Finger by William S Burroughs

The FingerThe Finger by William S Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is book #25 in Penguin’s “Modern” series. These short books (less than 100 pages) feature short works (poems, short stories, essays, speeches, and even a novella or two) from 20th century luminaries. In this case, the book consists of six short stories by the Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, who’s most famous for his novel “Naked Lunch” and for his affinity for heroin. I mention the latter not to besmirch Burroughs’ character, but because drug use (and the vices that sometimes travel hand-in-hand) is a fixture in Burroughs’ writing, and this collection is no exception.

Many, if not all, of these stories are in the same fictional universe, as suggested by repeated characters and locations — most notably the junky William Lee of “Naked Lunch” fame. [These stories were previously published in a collection entitled, “Interzone,” and the titular piece had an even earlier first publication in the book, “Early Routines.”] However, the stories are all stand-alone pieces and a couple of them show no evidence of being related. The one’s that do share common features don’t tell an overarching tale.

The six stories are:

1.) “The Finger”: An addict, Lee, cuts off his own finger (just the top joint) and is surprised by the reaction it incurs.

2.) “Driving Lesson”: An individual with no experience driving is asked to take the wheel, and given some bad advice to boot.

3.) “The Junky’s Christmas”: The spirit of Christmas overcomes an addict’s yearnings.

4.) “Lee and the Boys”: Lee and his various [non-sexual] interactions with young male prostitutes.

5.) “In the Café Central”: This isn’t so much a story as sketches of the various meetups simultaneously transpiring at a café. There is a table with: a.) a guide and a tourist, b.) a German expat and the annoying gossip who he uniquely tolerates, c.) a beautiful woman with bad teeth who is a wee bit sensitive about them.

6.) “Dream of the Penal Colony”: This hazy, little story is part a dream of being in a penal colony and part slurry of reality and the hallucinations of drug-addled drifter.

I enjoyed this little collection and would recommend it for someone who wants to sample Burroughs before diving into one of his novels. While the first story may have gotten the title role by virtue of its bizarre subject matter, I’d argue that “The Junky’s Christmas” is narratively the strongest. It’s not too hard to follow these pieces despite the fact that the stories virtually all feature unreliable narration by virtue of being told through the eyes of someone in the grips of substance abuse. Burroughs presents that mix of reality and drug-distorted world-view vividly and intelligibly. That said, if you’re expecting the world through sober eyes, you’re in the wrong place.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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What one needs to know to get a feel for this book is neither a summation of events nor the description of some crisis that sets up those events; instead, one simply needs to know who dharma bums were. This may or may not be self-evident, despite the fact that it’s essentially what the two words crammed together suggests. Dharma Bums were members of the Beat Generation (i.e. Beatniks, the 1950’s predecessor counter-culture to the hippies) who followed (or were enamored by) Buddhism, and who eschewed a materialistic lifestyle—which is to say they worked only when they needed to in order to put bread on the table or when they found it [autotelicly] satisfying to do so.

The book is literary fiction and places more emphasis on character than plot, and–furthermore—the events of the book read as though loosely autobiographical. Therefore, the happenings of the book are as scattershot as real lives tend to be.

The book begins with Ray Smith (the fictional counterpart to the real Kerouac) hopping a freight car in the manner of Jack London’s “The Road” (not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” nor Kerouac’s own “On the Road”)

The book then spends time with a series of characters who map to real life members of the Beat Generation. The most important of these individuals (besides Smith / Kerouac) as far as the book is concerned is Japhy Ryder who represents the Zen poet Gary Snyder. Ryder is a mentor to Ray Smith. First, Ryder’s knowledge and practice of Buddhism is much more advanced than Smith’s—though they occasionally disagree because Ryder is a Zen Buddhist and Smith has an affinity for a more mainstream sect, Smith learns much about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy from Ryder. Second, Ryder is a mentor in sharing various life lessons with Smith, including introducing him to mountaineering. A short expedition up a mountain is among the most memorable parts of the book.

I’ll mention one other of the characters, Alvah Goldbook, who stands for Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg may be the most famous of these individuals (other than Kerouac, himself) today, owing largely to his poem “Howl.” Ginsberg is more agnostic where Buddhism is concerned. He enjoys ideas from it but doesn’t jump in feet-first in the manner of Smith—let alone Ryder. There are a number of well-known beatniks who feature more or less prominently (e.g. Neal Cassady and Philip Whalen.)

The book’s end features Smith working alone as a fire lookout on another mountain—Kerouac readers later learned that this was the aptly named Desolation Peak. Japhy’s hand can be seen in this as well, as he recommended the job to Smith.

This is a book for the thinking-person. There is really only one dramatic event that stands out in my mind as the source of tension one normally seeks in a novel. The joy of the book comes from joining the characters in bouts of philosophizing, in the creative use of language, and in reflecting upon an approach to life that exists outside the conventional.

I’d recommend this book. Personally, I enjoyed it more, and found it more thought-provoking, than “On the Road,” which I suspect is the work for which Kerouac is more known and which is also a good read.

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