Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr. by William S. Burroughs, Jr.; edited and compiled by David Ohle; Soft Skull Press; 210 pages; $13.95
reviewed by Gerald Nicosia
It would be easy to write off Billy Burroughs, Jr., as just one more tragic child of the Beats—indeed, that’s what a lot of people did, including many members of the Beat entourage who should have known better—but the important thing about Billy’s life was not how quickly or painfully it ended, but how much he actually got done in his short time on earth.
Although he died just short of his 34th birthday (in 1981), he had already written and published two of the best novels to come from the younger Beat Generation—Speed and Kentucky Ham—and was well along on the third novel of his trilogy, Prakriti Junction, whose fragment is included in Cursed from Birth, along with journal entries, correspondence, interviews, medical reports, and other material that fleshes out the final years of his story.
If people could indeed choose the situation of their birth, no one would have chosen to be Billy Burroughs, Jr. He was drug-addicted in the womb of his mother, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, since she used vast amounts of Benzedrine, speed, during her pregnancy, while his old man—later to become the infamous author of Naked Lunch—raised marijuana and shot lizards for target practice in the wasteland of south Texas. That sordid scene—a sort of demonic inversion of the happy Norman Rockwell American household—was actually described by Jack Kerouac in On the Road.
A few years later, the elder Burroughs shot and killed Billy’s mother in a game of William Tell in Mexico City. At the age of four, Billy was spirited off by his wealthy paternal grandparents, heirs to the Burroughs adding-machine fortune, and raised in Palm Beach, Florida, where he saw his father on brief visits maybe once a year. Predictably, he got in trouble early with drugs, guns, and—most unlike his queer, misogynistic father—with girls. By the time Billy was sixteen, in the early 1960’s, he was living on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City and beginning the severe damage he would eventually inflict on his liver by shooting Methedrine several times a day. He would later also become a very heavy alcoholic. At the age of 29, he had a liver transplant to save his life after massive esophageal bleeding, but he did not curb his alcoholism. Five years later, he died alone in Florida—his body found along the side of a road, according to one story.
But somehow those stark outlines, however dramatic, and however colorful an addition they provide to the legend of his outlaw father, don’t really tell much of the story of this sensitive and big-hearted young man, who was a natural writer from the moment he first lifted a pen. Despite all the writing programs in the world, there is still something that can’t be taught—the ability to use words in a way that makes others fully see and hear and experience what you experienced—and Billy had that ability in spades. Cursed from Birth is chock-full of passages that are just plain good writing, apart from any Beat resonance.
Here is Billy finding his grandmother—who for all practical purposes had been his mother—locked in a mental asylum:
I spent the next ten minutes telling her that I didn’t really need any money
and then the nurse came in without knocking. "Your time is up." She left
and I mumbled, "No lady, not mine," and I couldn’t keep from starting to
cry. A pale, transparent shadow of my old strong mother looked at me
from her straitjacketed bones and said, "Billy! What’s wrong, lamb?" I
started to say I couldn’t stand to see her here, but then remembered that I
had no home to take her to and said nothing. She sighed, looked vacantly
out the window, and went back to picking at her robe. [page 25]
Billy’s compassion for the wounded of this world is matched only by his acid tongue for the stony-hearted, and most especially for the callous rich. He tells a story of trying to earn a few bucks as a kid by selling seed packets door to door in Palm Beach, only to have the door slammed in his face one rainy day by the wife of the owner of the Palm Beach Post, who says, "We don’t need any, we have a gardener." [page 9]
The stories he tells on doctors are equally fierce and chastising. After failing to close a large fistula in his abdomen (from the liver transplant) through which his intestines are "visible, squeezing themselves through a small hole that was getting bigger, looking like a beautiful cross between a cauliflower + a purple rose," the doctors blame the failure of the surgical wound to heal on his "state of mind," and proceed to question him on his possible sexual problems and whether he has ever manifested psychotic tendencies. [page 147]
Cursed from Birth is painful to read in places and not for the squeamish, but there are many transcendent moments that redeem the pain, as when Billy tells of the unquenchable love he bears for the father who could never manage to show more than a shadow of affection for him, whose own emotions were so deeply buried that he always found it easier to ask how Billy’s writing was going than to ask how Billy himself was feeling.
Moreover, there are deeply important lessons in this book about the price of testing limits—that achievement for which the Beats have become world-renowned—and a lot of unexpected truth about the dark avenues of existence to which genius often leads.
With each passing year, as the Beats become less of a radical threat and more of a commercial goldmine, the legacy of the Beats becomes more and more heavily censored. In fact, Cursed from Birth was cancelled by its original publisher, Grove, supposedly for fear of lawsuits from those who were portrayed unfavorably in its pages. Considering the recent suppression of another Beat child’s last novel—Jan Kerouac’s Parrot Fever—it is a miracle that this book got out at all.
first published in the San Francisco Chronicle