books, review, throwback thursday

Throwback Thursday: Reaction Paper and Book Review of Junky by William S. Burroughs

Junky by William S. Burroughs (1953), is a novel detailing the experiences that narrator Bill Lee has both using and selling a variety of drugs. The novel is considered to be pseudo-autobiographical and based on Burroughs’ own experiences with drugs and addiction. The novel has a very loose structure, being divided more into scenes via page breaks than by chapters, and is written in a stream-of-consciousness style. This style, as well as the first person narration, gives the novel a very personal feel, but has the consequence of making it read like a diary of sorts, rather than a structured novel. 

One aspect of the style of the novel that I really enjoyed is that Burroughs doesn’t necessarily try to garner sympathy from the reader. The narrator is very matter of fact about drugs and addiction, and that makes the account feel more credible, despite the natural distrust readers may have for drug users and addicts. There are no monologues of remorse or regret, no direct preaching to the reader to not use drugs; instead, the negative experiences Bill faces are allowed to speak for themselves, without hand-holding the reader to the obvious conclusion. The issue many stories about addiction have in my experience is that they lean too heavily on a direct emotional appeal to the reader. They can often end up feeling too much like an after-school special, where they try too hard to convince the reader drugs are bad, as if the reader cannot see that for themselves. Junky did not have that quality, which to me sets it apart from similar narratives in a positive way. 

One recurrent theme that stands out to me is the narrator’s description of cells. As Bill describes drug effects and withdrawal, the images of cells, growth, and decay are continuously brought up. This grounds the experiences depicted of drug use in a physical body, in a way that the descriptions of feelings and sensations might not. Though “junk” does not affect cells in the simplistic way Bill describes it, that mental image is one that unexpectedly stuck with me, among all the depictions of drug use and effects.

While I enjoyed the novel overall, I do have some significant issues with it. As mentioned earlier, Junky reads more like a journal than a novel, as there is little to no discernable plot. The book follows our narrator for a period of years, and through the course of a variety of drug habits and withdrawal, but there is no arc to the story, no character growth or change. There is, in fact, very little to indicate that the story is fiction rather than a biography within the text itself, though scholars have determined it is a fictionalized account of Burroughs’ experiences, and not a straightforward one. 

While this style is very easy to read, it does quickly get boring. There is very little that actually happens, the entirety of the novel is a back and forth between Bill getting hooked, starting to sell, and then getting in legal trouble and moving to a new location, repeatedly, with little true variation. Many descriptions are repeated throughout the novel, in nearly the same language. For example, the “chinese cure” is given the same long explanation at least twice. While this is likely meant to show that, for many drug addicts, the cycle of highs and lows is just that – a cycle without any significant change – it does not change the fact that from a narrative perspective, it is not the most interesting narrative past a certain point. I think for the impact to be strongest, it should have been a shorter novel, so the reader could have the impact of seeing the effects of drug addiction, without becoming desensitized in the repetition. 

The last significant critique I have of the novel is of the implicit racism and internalized homophobia that recurs throughout the novel; although, I do understand that this may largely be because the book was written in the 1950s, which had very different attitudes and standards of what was acceptable.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel. Junky gives a very matter-of-fact account of addiction, one that is not not necessarily pessimistic or optimistic for the most part. This is good in that it gives as close to neutral a lense for readers to see through, but does make it difficult for readers to empathize with drug addicts, which can be dangerous to public health measures focused on helping addicts through withdrawal, rather than arresting them. While an interesting look at addiction and drug use, and vividly emotional in many ways, the ways in which the novel is outdated, with references to old slang, old laws, and in some places outdated scientific understanding, it may not be the most useful tool for understanding drug addiction. 

Burroughs, W. S., & Harris, O. (2012). Junky. New York: Grove Press.

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