|Cursed From Birth|
FEATURE by Willard Manus
Soft Skull Press recently published CURSED FROM BIRTH--THE SHORT, UNHAPPY
LIFE OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS JR, edited by David Ohle. The book is a portrait
of a tragic figure, the son of the writer who became notorious in the
1950s after he accidentally shot and killed--during a William Tell-like
prank--his speed-freak, common-law wife wife, Joan Vollmer. Burroughs
senior later became a heroin addict, an experience he dramatized in an
underground novel, Naked Lunch, that brought him fame and fortune in the
60s and 70s.
Yet somehow, in the midst of his Job-like sufferings, Billy managed to publish two novels (Speed & Kentucky Ham), poetry and a fair amount of journalism. Although he was a poor speller and lacked discipline, Billy made up for his failings by wielding language in a vivid, pungent way. He also showed that he could be a good friend, win a wife, live a communal life, enjoy a laugh or two.
But then his health (and marriage) fell apart, largely as a result of his boozing, which was prodigious and debilitating. Things got so bad that he was told only a liver transplant could save him. Billy started writing about his ghastly medical and hospital experiences in a new novel, Prakriti Junction, which forms the basis of CURSED FROM BIRTH.
Billy never did finish the novel; the transplant may have saved his life but it punished him in other ways. The steroids he was obliged to take (to stave off his body's rejection of the new liver) literally drove him mad; and because he didn't have the willpower to quit drinking and smoking, he suffered from fits and comas, breakdowwns and nightmares, the torture of the damned.
Writer (and admirer) David Ohle has taken Billy's incomplete manuscript and shaped it into a kind of biography by adding
letters and journal entries wrritten by various people who knew him: his father; the famed Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg; several doctors and shrinks; various women and friends. The result is a sad, painful but unforgettable portrait of a wasted, but not unworthy life.