Cursed From Birth

FEATURE by Willard Manus

The adventurous 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.

Burroughs junior was four when his mother died. Sent to Florida to be raised by paternal grandparents, Billy's life was jinxed from the start. Alcohol and drugs were in his DNA and he grew up a troubled, rebellious, often-stoned teenager who flunked out of one school after another. He started a wandering life that took him from Florida to New York to Tangiers (and back) with major problems along the way, including physical and mental breakdowns.

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.