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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