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.

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