The Beat Generation in the US generally brings to mind three iconic authors: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, each famous for their revealing insights and thought-provoking texts into what it meant to be a ‘beatnik’ in the 1950s.
Without a doubt, of these three, Jack Kerouac (he of On The Road fame) is by far the most well-known. Then there is Allen Ginsberg, who is lauded as the writer of Howl, a bizarre poem that I haven’t read. (Although, during a James Franco-obsessed stage in my life, I did watch the film, which recounts the poem entirely. Does that count?)
Then there’s William S. Burroughs who, despite writing Naked Lunch, is the least famous of the three. Which to me, particularly after reading Junky, seems kinda outrageous. Not only is Junky far less self-absorbed than On The Road, but Burroughs led a pretty incredible life. He was addicted to heroin, arrested multiple times, fled to Mexico and killed his wife during a game of William Tell (the ol’ ‘shoot the apple off the top of someone’s head’ game. Yes, apparently that does go wrong sometimes). Seriously, why isn’t this guy more well-known??
Junky is a semi-autobiographical novel that follows Burroughs and his addiction to heroin in the 1950s. While it starts off as the typical ‘experimentation’ stage of drugs that so many people go through, quickly Burroughs goes from shooting up morphine to becoming a full-blown addict to heroin. While he does take himself off heroin multiple times, Burroughs always ends up going back for more, for that last hit – leading him to getting arrested, prison and eventually, Mexico.
Believe it or not, I’m not a heroin addict, so reading Junky was insightful yet also appalling. Told in first person perspective it provided me with an outlook that I would never have considered, particularly since the most addictive substance I’ve tried is chocolate. And while Junky was once considered ‘unpublishable’ because of its content, I found it incredibly gripping to be in the mind of a drug addict and honestly couldn’t get enough of it (how ironic, considering the subject matter).
What amazed me about Junky and Burrough’s writing though was that it wasn’t self-absorbed, whiny or even superior – Burrough’s just delivered the hard facts of an addiction, both good and bad. And while Kerouac’s On The Road frustrated me because it glamourised a selfish, seedy lifestyle, Burrough’s does anything but – he emphasises that while getting high is great in the moment, it’s not what anyone aspires for.
Overall, Junky was a surprisingly enjoyable, thought-provoking read that gave an insight into the Beat Generation and a drug addiction in the 1950s. Though I can see why it was so controversial when it was first released, I would still recommend Junky for anyone who wants to view things from an entirely different perspective. Which is kinda the point of books, right?
Have you read Junky or anything by William S. Burroughs? Are you a fan of the Beat Generation? Let me know!