Johnsons

John Sutherland

  • The Place of Dead Roads by William Burroughs
    Calder, 306 pp, £9.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7145 4030 7
  • Angels by Denis Johnson
    Chatto, 209 pp, £7.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2777 5
  • Moll Cutpurse: Her True History by Ellen Galford
    Stramullion, 221 pp, £4.50, May 1984, ISBN 0 907343 03 1

Burroughs’s latest book arrives with the simultaneous news of Alexander Trocchi’s death. For one who used heroin for its literary stimulus, Trocchi did well to last to 59. Burroughs, whose substance abuse has been even more notorious, is now 70. A Grand Old Junky. An aroma of Establishment dignity now attaches to him. In the early Sixties, Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary, saw fit to deny him a visa to stay in Britain. He was undesirable. The TLS did all in its power to keep Naked Lunch from publication, proscribing it as ‘vomit’. Nevertheless, helped by a determined defence from its British publisher, John Calder (who claimed to discern in Burroughs the James Joyce of our day), Naked Lunch went on to become a terrific post-Chatterley best-seller. The Place of Dead Roads is published with a grant from the Arts Council: a double seal of Establishment approval and minority sales prospects. In a manner of speaking, Burroughs has finally arrived.

Burroughs likes to kick off his fiction in deadpan documentary style, thereafter spiralling away into increasingly wild fantasy. The Place of Dead Roads begins, lucidly enough, with the newspaper account of a doubly fatal shoot-out in Boulder, Colorado between two men of mystery: William Seward Hall, a real-estate speculator and writer, and Mike Chase. Neither man shot his weapon (later we learn that Hall carried a 44 special action; Chase a 455 Webley; Burroughs loves guns). Both died simultaneously by rifle-fire from an unknown third party. Hall, it is reported, wrote under the pen-name and in the person of Kim Carsons, the famous Western shootist, and subsequently the central character of The Place of Dead Roads. From this initial point, the narrative spills out like some nasty liquid, in any number of non-linear directions, following the oblique spurts of Burroughs’s sado-sexual fantasies, paranoid obsessions, surreal machineries. Narrative randomness is justified by a favourite conceit. The hero/author has sovereignty over his novelistic time and space; like the film director (or like God, or the tripping junky) he can cross-cut to any place on the narrative map spread out before him. From the enigmatic slaughter in 1899 (never explained, or at least so encrypted in Burroughs’s secretive narration as to be undiscoverable), the novel moves to an eventual finale in which, after an orgy of time-jumps and identity-changes, Kim returns to the frustrated shootout as witnessed from his point of view. (Burroughs likes ‘last words’. Kim’s are: ‘WHAT THE FU – –’.) The circuit from pure objectivity to subjectivity is complete.

Old men write retrospective and self-revealing novels. William Seward Hall (‘a corridor, a hall leading to many doors’) plays off against William Seward Burroughs. Much of the work revolves around fictional St Albans and Johnsonville, by actual St Louis Missouri, where Burroughs was born in 1914. (A map of the area around his birthplace is provided.) The least squeamish of writers, Burroughs confronts his imminent destination, as well as his now distant origins. There is some unflinching notation of the incontinent senilities of Beau Brummell (an exiled dandy with whom Burroughs evidently feels kinship) and Somerset Maugham, the homosexual novelist. Burroughs apparently expects to end up, like them, a driveller and a show.

The dedication of The Place of Dead Roads is (surprisingly) to Denton Welch and Kim Carsons. Welch was the archetypal sedentary writer, crippled in a bicycle accident. Carsons (playing off ‘Kit Carson’) is the typical man of action, whom inactive writers invent and in whom they invest their unfulfilled selves. Carsons is an indefatigable traveller, cocks-man, adventurer, revolutionary and criminal. Past the dedicatory threshold of the novel, the relationship between Hall and Carsons is parallel to that implied between Welch and Carsons. Hall is the sedentary ghost-writer, the pale literary man whose battles have all been in the ‘chessboard of his writing’. Kim Carsons is the outlaw, whose battles have been with authority. Both are components of Burroughs, man of letters and wild boy.

In the largest sense, Burroughs’s career has been dedicated to the discovery, or invention, of a territory for his outlawry; an ‘interzone’, or no man’s (certainly no woman’s) land where his immoralities can have free play. In his practices as a homosexual and an opiate user, Tangier is the geographical location which has evidently served him best. Here Burroughs finds fictional refuge in an imagined community of ‘Johnsons’ (Carsons clones), living undercover (complete with female impersonators) in Johnsonville, Missouri. The Johnsons are pledged to an eventual escape from Planet Earth, by space-ship. They meanwhile give their attention to evolution-enhancing experiments ‘designed to produce asexual offspring, to cloning, use of artificial wombs, and transfer operations’. As an outlaw gang, the ‘Wild Fruits’, they dedicate themselves to merciless terrorism against straights, or the ‘shits’, as they are uncompromisingly called here. The conceit at the core of The Place of Dead Roads is that the ‘shits of the world’ are epidemically infected by a virus, a rabid alien parasite descended from outer space, apparently Venusian in origin. This ‘RIGHT’ virus (so called because its hosts are possessed with a frenzied sense of their rectitude) leads them to fanatical persecution of such victimless crimes (normal behaviour for the uninfected) as homosexuality, obscenity, drink and drugs use. Civilisation, religion, conventional morality are (in the Burroughs universe) viral and pathogenic. In its wilder, more vindictive flights, The Place of Dead Roads fantasises a mass clean-up (or ‘shiticide’) programme, in which Christians – the main vectors of the Venusian planetary virus – will be pinpointed and assassinated by Johnsons. Kim, in one comic subplot, destroys the inhabitants of the nearby town of Jehovah by distributing free illustrated Bibles, impregnated with smallpox virus. (Homeopathic medicine, one might call it, using one virus to eliminate another more virulent.) Nazi genocide is evoked by the Johnson’s SS (‘Shit Slaughter’) commandoes formed to undertake a hygienic final solution and rid the universe of Christian, temperate heterosexuals. In their active character, the Johnsons are vigilantes; less furiously, they are refugees, a utopian community envisaged by Burroughs along recognisably pastoral lines. Johnsonville or ‘PA’ (potential America) will ‘endeavour to halt the Industrial Revolution before it is too late, to regulate populations at a reasonable point, to replace quantitative money eventually with qualitative money, to decentralise, to conserve resources. The Industrial Revolution is primarily a virus revolution, dedicated to controlled proliferation of identical objects and persons.’ One of the surprises of this consistently startling novel is to find at its core these Thoreauesque longings for a regenerate America, where power and authority (what Burroughs has elsewhere called the control machine) are dissolved in a nostalgically ideal community.

There is much to enjoy in The Place of Dead Roads. Burroughs’s burlesques of SF, Western dime novels and – in one hilarious excursion – of The Godfather are brilliantly done. If for nothing else, he must surely rank with Joyce as a parodist. And although the impact of his work is tamer than it was in the Sixties, he still offers the kicks to be found in the utterly, not to be exceeded, outrageous. As if to give Henry Brooke a posthumous justification for his ban, Burroughs at one point in his indiscriminate offensiveness looses an emetic salvo of Anglophobia: ‘what hope for a country where people will camp out for three days to glimpse the Royal Couple? Where one store clerk refers to another as his “colleague”... God Save the Queen and a fascist regime... a flabby toothless fascism to be sure. Never go too far in any direction, is the basic law on which Limey-land is built. The Queen stabilises the whole stinking shithouse.’ Not himself afraid to go too far, Burroughs goes on to devise a little fantasia in which the Queen, commiserating with the parents of Aberfan for the deaths of their children under the tip slide, is drowned out, and stunk out by a virtuoso farting guerrilla attached to the ERP underground army.

  Her address was designed to be simple and moving.

  ‘To those of you who have lost your children in this disaster, I can only say...’

  It rumbles out over the mikes on TV... my God, what a sound. The Queen turns pale but continues:

  ‘... that your grief is my grief and the grief of all...’

  Her words are drowned out by loathsome, squishy, farting noises, gurgles and chuckles:

  ‘ENGLAND...’ the Queen gasps and flees from the podium, leaving in her wake a monumental belch.

  ERP

  She never made another public appearance. Her Majesty is indisposed... permanently indisposed... The monarchy is tottering.

It speaks well for his indifference to lèsemajesté in the higher interests of art that Sir William Rees-Mogg should have paid for this to be published for us.

Angels is a first novel by a young American poet. Its dedication is to ‘H.P. and to those who have shared their experience, strength and hope’. Who H.P. may be is decently private; but the phraseology directly alludes to the tradition and practice of Alcoholics Anonymous. Angels strikingly resembles the freewheeling, good-natured narratives which AA irreverently calls ‘drunkalogues’. In them, members publicly recall their previous lives, and how they were all screwed up by drinking. Former drunks (which Denis Johnson may not be) tend to be connoisseurs of the kind of tragic-absurd misadventures to be found in this novel.

Angels introduces us to its heroine, Jamie, at the Oakland Greyhound station. She is running away from a trailer-park marriage gone wrong. On the five-day journey to her sister in Hershey, Pennsylvania, she falls in with Bill Houston. ‘A nice man’, Bill is a loser: three times divorced, an ex-sailor and ex-con. He is going, as he says, to Pittsburgh, for a spell of ‘wine, women and song’. They get loaded on his bourbon. Jamie turns out to be the woman he’s looking for, and they both end up in Pittsburgh. Having spent all his fun-money, made rather a half-hearted attempt to prostitute Jamie and knocked her little girl about, Bill moves on to Chicago. (Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a leitmotif in the narrative.) Reduced to selling her blood, Jamie takes the money her long-suffering sister has wired her and instead of going where she should, to Hershey, never arrived at in this novel, she follows Bill to Chicago. At that city’s bus station (where she hopefully posts herself and simply waits for him to pass by) she is picked up, drugged and raped by another nice man. Bill reads about her ordeal in the Tribune, and they are reunited. For no particular reason, they move on to Phoenix, where they gather a little moss in the shape of Bill’s Bible-crazy mother and his two brothers, one of whom is a drunk, the other a junky. The Houston brothers hamfistedly attempt bank robbery. Bill kills a guard, and qualifies as the first criminal to go to the gas chamber under Arizona’s new capital punishment statute. The last section of the novel follows his weeks in Death Row, and Jamie’s psychotic nightmares, drying out in the Mamie Eisenhower wing of the local mental institution. Wherever it starts, the journey’s end, as AA solemnly informs its members, leads to the prison, the asylum or the morgue.

Summarised, it’s a grim, hopeless chronicle of little, insignificant lives: tales of the transient, no-account pilgrims who travel Greyhound. As Johnson narrates it, the whole thing is consistently tender and on occasion hilarious. All the characters – even the Chicago rapist – are oddly amiable. And the whole thing is told with a wry detachment which contrives to be both wisecracking and poetic. Take, for instance, Jamie as we first encounter her behind the window of the Greyhound bus:

Jamie sat by the window looking out and smoking a Kool. People still crowded at the bus’s door, people she hoped never to meet – struggling with mutilated luggage and paper sacks that might have contained, the way they handled them, the reasons for their every regretted act and the justification for their wounds. A black man in a tweed suit and straw hat held up a sign for his departing relatives: ‘THE SUN SHALL BE TURNED INTO DARKNESS AND THE MOON INTO BLOOD’ (JOEL 2:31). Under the circumstances, Jamie felt close to this stranger.

Johnson’s balance is admirable; his tone is never so cool as to be heartless, nor does his affection for his hopeless bunglers descend into sentimentality. The novel flirts with higher meaning, signalled in the title (the epigraph is a sombre nugget of Catholicism from Greene’s The End of the Affair). There is a lot of byplay about souls, immortality and the manichean. ‘Everybody’s religious in the Death House,’ as the guard tells Bill, before he takes his last walk. But Johnson contrives to smuggle in his seriousness obliquely, using as couriers a troupe of varied religious nuts who comically garble the novel’s message. Serio-comic is a hard trick to pull off, but Johnson succeeds so well as to make one eager for more fiction from him.

Mary, or Moll, Frith is one of the few women, and one of the fewer low-born women of the Elizabethan era who rate an entry in the DNB. Drama and legend have, in fact, treated her rather better than documented history. She is most famously commemorated as the ‘Roaring Girl’ of Middleton and Dekker’s play, performed in 1611. For blasphemy, she is known to have been forced to do penance at St Paul’s Cross. She did so conspicuously drunk. She is supposed to have been a cut-purse, and a Fagin to younger pickpockets. She is portrayed wearing men’s clothes. She consorted with gypsies and players, smoked a pipe and was altogether odd.

Ellen Galford’s book is the production of a feminist publishing collective (who have turned it out very prettily) and is dedicated to the author’s ‘East Preston Street comrades’. The aim of the project is to dust off Moll, and show her in her true person as a proto-comrade. The story – effectively a bundle of anecdotes – is narrated principally through Bridget, Moll’s lover. An apothecary’s daughter, Bridget meets Moll when she comes along for a sex-change operation. Bridget persuades Moll that true love requires no surgery; nor, as it happens, male genitalia. The sensitive parts of the novel are confined to Bridget’s journal. For the other, larger section of the narrative, Galford has evidently taken the naif Elizabethan novelist Thomas Deloney as her model: simple jests, wit-combats, stratagems and victories over the male sex, puritan killjoys and woman oppressors, make up the bulk of the action. Typical is the episode in which Moll saves a wise old country woman from witch burning by dressing her up in plague spots, so frightening off the all-male lynch mob.

Superficially, there is some resemblance with Robert Nye’s Elizabethan pastiche, Falstaff. But Galford’s purposes are inflexibly more polemical beneath their fustian. Moll Cutpurse labours to redeem Elizabethan women as feminist pioneers, to establish their sorority with contemporary militants, to dispel the lying stereotypes with which men – in writing history – legitimise their campaign against women. Witches are here presented as repositories of womanly wisdom and lore; alehouse shrews are cunning businesswomen. Moll herself is Greenham woman avant la lettre.

At times, the message is loud enough to grate. In an alehouse argument between the heroine and Thomas Middleton Moll is asked if she will every marry:

  ‘Oh, I may well marry,’ she said. ‘When lack-land fathers seek not to buy their spendthrift sons estates and manors entailed in the body of a richer man’s daughter. When men strive not to purchase themselves a faithful servant who asks no wage but a few words mumbled before a minister. When a woman can get her pleasure without paying for it with her life. When these things come to pass, on the seventh Sunday of that month, I’ll let any man take me to wife.’

  ‘In truth,’ cried Middleton, ‘you are a poet, Moll. But I like not your philosophy, which bodes ill for all my sex.’

But it’s hard not to admire this handsome book, which is on offer at a third less than the going price for new novels. It may bode ill for conventional publishers.