By Alex Robles
When I was 17 years old in El Paso, Texas, I stumbled upon a tattered copy of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. My teenage self couldn’t have anticipated the profound impact that this book, and its author, would have on my life. As a 50-year-old man now, I look back on that discovery with nostalgia and appreciation for the literary rollercoaster that it set me on.
Born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri, William Seward Burroughs II was a central figure of the Beat Generation, alongside Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. This influential group of writers and artists challenged societal norms, explored taboo subjects, and experimented with drugs and alternative lifestyles. Burroughs’ personal history was as tumultuous as his writing, marked by drug addiction, legal troubles, and the tragic accidental shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer.
Reading Naked Lunch as a teenager in 1990 was a revelation. It felt like science fiction, with drug use and sex in all dimensions sprinkled throughout. The novel was a wild ride that often felt surreal, and I’ll admit, I didn’t always understand everything he was talking about. But it didn’t matter—I was hooked. The book’s infamous opening line set the stage for its dark and twisted journey: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…”
Naked Lunch was just the beginning. As I delved deeper into Burroughs’ writing, I found myself enthralled by the rawness and honesty of his work. The trilogy that includes The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express exposed me to the world of the Nova Mob, time travel, and the manipulative power of language. Burroughs’ experimental writing style, with its non-linear narrative and use of the cut-up technique, challenged my perception of what literature could be.
One of Burroughs’ most famous quotes comes from his book, Junky, a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences with drug addiction: “Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” This quote resonated with me, as it painted a vivid picture of the harsh reality of addiction and the struggle to escape its grip.
As I matured and continued to explore Burroughs’ work, I discovered more layers to his writing. In addition to his groundbreaking novels, I found inspiration in his essays, interviews, and spoken-word performances. His insightful social commentary on topics such as control, power, and corruption remains relevant today.
Discovering William S. Burroughs‘ writing at the age of 17 was a life-altering experience. His unapologetic exploration of the human experience, coupled with his unique literary style, has left an indelible mark on me. Even now, as a 50-year-old man, I can say that I was never the same after reading Naked Lunch. The journey through Burroughs’ world of literature is one I will always cherish, and I encourage others to embark on this extraordinary voyage.