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Wild boys: the high lives of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

Sixty years on, the beats continue to exercise a formidable grip on cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shotgun Billy: William Burroughs posing in front of his paintings in 1987. (Photo: Getty)
Shotgun Billy: William Burroughs posing in front of his paintings in 1987. (Photo: Getty)

William S Burroughs: a Life
Barry Miles
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 718pp, £30

The Haunted Life
Jack Kerouac
Penguin Classics, 208pp, £20

The standard operating take on the American 1950s is that it was a time of entrench­ed conservatism and the reinforcement of white-bread family values. Without question, the decade was, on one level, a postwar period of peace and plenty. After the trauma of a lengthy depression, the knock-on effect of the US wartime economy was an unprecedented growth spurt.

A huge system of transcontinental highways began to redefine the notion of automotive movement and the American love affair with the road. The middle-class flight from the cities commenced, as new suburban enclaves started to spring up on the commutable outskirts of major metropolitan areas. The most notorious of these ’burbs – Levittown, New York – set a new benchmark for aesthetic sterility in a nation that, for all its talk of rugged individuals, has always championed conformity.

With a generation of returning soldiers starting families and buying stuff, the consumer-driven economy boomed. National hyper-consumerism was introduced (courtesy of that newfangled medium, television); two cars in every garage was the desired ideal.

Overseeing this era of social compliance and economic boom was a soldier-turned-politician, General Dwight D Eisenhower, very much a Republican of the old fiscal conservative school (without the Tea Party/born-again Christian extremism that has turned the present-day Grand Old Party into an Ayn Rand-meets-Jesus-is-Lord freak show). Though Eisenhower was a far more nuanced president than history often records – the early civil rights battles were fought by him and he outlined the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” that continues to define the destiny of the republic – the communist witch-hunts of Senator McCarthy (whom Eisenhower loathed, even though he showed little fortitude against the alcoholic senator’s reign of terror) took place during his time in office. The Rosenbergs were executed for treason under his watch. And the cold war simply got colder, as the nuclear arms race gained pace.

Besides being an era when pregnancy meant housewifedom – and when an unmarried, childless “career woman” was looked upon as an urban Typhoid Mary – the 1950s were also a time when any sort of nonconformist behaviour was regarded with immense suspicion. Long before there were flower power kids with shoulder-length hair, there were the so-called beatniks who were testing the frontiers of all things libertine in a very button-down era.

Periods of social and political conservatism can often spark a cultural revolt against the banalities and platitudes of the status quo. Certainly, the 1950s were a decade in which many American artists were hounded into expatriatism or living a broken life because of past political allegiances or sexual proclivities. But it was also, intriguingly, a time of new-found creative confidence, in which the long shadow of European cultural dominance began to be replaced by fresh, innovative American vernaculars. The plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller (and later Edward Albee) spoke directly to an American experience. De Kooning, Pollock and Rothko extended the painterly barriers of colouration and visual form. Charlie Parker invented bop. Miles Davis created a new jazz language best described as the “birth of the cool”. And then there were the beats.

Sixty years after their incarnation, the beats continue to exercise a formidable grip on cultural life on both sides of the Atlantic. With recent films based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Big Sur; with a cinematic reconstruction of the writing of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the subsequent trial against its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for allegedly distributing pornography; with Daniel Radcliffe leaving Harry Potter behind to play a young Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University (in the film Kill Your Darlings, which charts the birth of the beats); and with a very major, very ace new biography of William S Burroughs by Barry Miles just published, it can easily be  argued that we are in the middle of a significant beat revival.

What makes the beats so compelling is that they were louche, drugged up and sexually adventurous at a time when the three-Martini lunch and the fast fling with the secretary was the corporate man norm. We continue to take an interest in Kerouac because of his great romance of the road. We still embrace Ginsberg as someone who created a seminal American poetic oeuvre, was proudly out as a homosexual at a juncture when gay men and women were often forced into psychotherapy to cure them of their alleged deviance, and was a flamboyantly Jewish/Buddhist mystic Walt Whitman for our times.

Then there was William S Burroughs: the great literary outlaw, the Midwestern dude in the funeral director’s suit who lived a life that was always testing every possible barrier. Indeed the psychic outlook of Burroughs could best be nailed by evoking an epigram from one of his literary stepchildren, Hunter S Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Consider this early childhood trauma in 1918 when the young Burroughs – born into grand bourgeois circumstances (the Burroughs adding machine, invented by William’s grandfather, had helped build the family fortune) – was taken by his nanny to meet one of her girlfriends who, in turn, brought him along to meet her veterinarian boyfriend (now there’s a tangled web of contacts). In the course of the afternoon, Burroughs might have been forced to fellate the vet, biting down on his penis and being rewarded with a hard smack to the head. Or he might have seen his nanny having sex with her girlfriend, “giving rise to an infantile idea that women had penises”.

Whatever happened on that postwar afternoon in late summer, it was one of many wildly off-kilter incidents (including those moments when he suffered severe fevers and, like his supernatural-obsessed mother, saw visions of animals on his bedroom walls) that helped shape the outré Burroughs sensibility. Of course, coming from money, he went to the right schools and throughout his years at Harvard, in the über-uptight Cambridge, Massachusetts, he kept a loaded .32 Smith & Wesson revolver with him and frequently made trips down to New York for speakeasy debauchery and gay pickups, staying at a dive hotel on Central Park South for four bucks a night.

Burroughs’s taste for life on the margins was (irony of ironies) augmented during his stay at that ultra-Wasp Ivy League university. There was a stint in the army. There were his Greenwich Village years, during which he came to be entwined with a group of Columbia undergraduates – including Ginsberg, Kerouac and Lucien Carr – who became, with the likes of Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder on the west coast, the chief exponents of the beat movement.

Burroughs had been introduced to this group by an English instructor friend from St Louis named David Kammerer, who had been obsessed with the waifish, Proustian Carr since his schoolboy years. (Carr subsequently murdered Kammerer while at Columbia in 1944. He did just two years in prison for the murder, on the grounds that Kammerer had come on to him sexually – back when a homosexual advance was deemed just cause for murder.)

There was also a woman named Joan Vollmer, a recent graduate of Barnard College (Columbia’s sister school, as women’s universities were known), who with her Benzedrine psychosis problems, alcohol addiction and intellectual brilliance, was an equal match for Burroughs – especially given his new interest in “junk” (opium derivatives), of which heroin and morphine ranked at the top of the charts.

In the Burroughs biographical narrative, life was always lived on the wrong side of the street. One of the great pleasures of Barry Miles’s capacious, compelling biography is that it surveys the many landscapes and psychotic episodes in Burroughs’s life with novelistic brio, brilliantly rendering the interior of a scuzzy New York bar circa 1945, or the Malcolm Lowry-esque years down Mexico way, where Burroughs had his William Tell moment: telling his wife to put a glass on her head so that he could show their guests what a great shot he was. Alas, his aim turned out to be faulty and she died of the gun­-shot wound (he managed to beat the homicide rap).

Then there was his stint in Tangier (“Bill . . . paid 60 cents to watch two Arab boys screw each other”) – the expatriate scene and the intoxicating grit of that city is cunningly animated in Miles’s elegant prose. And loitering with intent in Paris. And the furore surrounding the publication of Naked Lunch. And the creation of an oeuvre, not to mention what was perhaps the most well-cultivated public literary persona since Hemingway’s lone man machismo veneer – only in Burroughs’s case, the outlaw persona that he showed the world was never a veneer. He truly was someone who lived a life of breathtaking risk and originality; of faultless outlandishness.

Whether detailing Burroughs’s attempts to deal with the corrupt behaviour of his French publishers, Olympia Press, over the rights to Naked Lunch, his dabbling in a new-found cult called Scientology, his appearance in a U2 video or his strange return to the Midwest, living out the final years of his life amid the flat vistas of Kansas, Miles’s wonderful biography is rich in anecdote and has an extraordinary cast of supporting characters, from his beat cohorts to the New York demi-monde that adopted him as its favourite morally suspect uncle. But Miles always keeps our attention focused on the singularity of Burroughs’s life and his need to go against the American grain, while simultaneously grappling with (and finally re-embracing) the question of American identity – not to mention his lifelong love affair with weed, pharmaceuticals and semi-automatic weapons.

Miraculously – given how much abuse his internal combustion system withstood – Burroughs managed to live 83 years. Jack Kerouac, on the other hand, died as a washed-up alcoholic in his 47th year, leaving this life in 1969. If Ginsberg and Burroughs were the visionary talents of the beat generation, Kerouac remains its mythic poster boy, especially as the title of his first published novel, On the Road, has entered the lingua franca.    

Before becoming America’s great literary drifter, Kerouac – as an undergraduate at Columbia University – wrote an early roman-à-clef that begins with its protagonist’s father complaining: “America isn’t the same country anymore; it isn’t even America anymore.”

More of a sketchbook than a finished novella, The Haunted Life has all the usual attributes of that classic “summer when everything changed” American yarn – in which a young man faces all sorts of primordial questions as he surveys his homeland, veering between the harsh realities of a still-depressed economy and a looming war. To classify it as juvenilia would be a tad harsh, especially as it is full of lovely examples of Kerouac’s burgeoning American pastoral prose (he writes beautifully about the aesthetics of New England life). At heart, Kerouac was a romantic who, like his beat counterparts, was always in search of a sense of self in a country where the individual is both mythically revered and ignored.

You have to be a true Kerouac groupie to find much of interest in this slender novella but knowing how the demons of fame and doubt eventually consumed him (just as they somehow sustained Burroughs) makes this first attempt at essaying a literary vision strangely moving.

And it also serves as a reminder that, in an America now so divided by its on­going cultural wars, the beats remain a crucially sceptical, sexually robust antidote to the deep-rooted puritanism and need for national self-congratulation (we are God’s preferred terrain, after all) that still define much of the mainstream opinion in American life.

Douglas Kennedy’s 11th novel, “Five Days”, will be published in paperback by Arrow (£6.99) on 10 April