William S Burroughs – Call Me Burroughs

William S. Burroughs week all this week, leading up to Wednesday, which will mark the one hundredth anniversary of his birth – and, just in time for that monumental occasion, a huge new biography by Barry Miles has just come out, 718 pages (“almost as long”, Wall Street Journal reviewer Henry Allen,  points out, “as Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw – The Life and Times of William S Burroughs (1988), which came out at 768 pages when reissued with new material in 2012″. Miles, himself, the reviewer notes, has already written one Burroughs biography, William Burroughs – El Hombre Invisible (1993) but this, “written with the full support of the Burroughs estate and drawing from countless interviews with figures like Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Burroughs himself”, supplants it – and more! – “the  first full-length biography of Burroughs to be published in (almost) a quarter of a century, and the first one to chronicle the last decade of  Burroughs’ life and examine his long-term cultural legacy”, as the publishers note.

Early reviews have been enthusiastic. Here’s Publishers Weekly (from last December) – “The pioneering American countercultural writer and artist William Burroughs emerges as his own greatest character in this raucous biography. Biographer and Burroughs editor, Miles pens a dense, detailed, yet wonderfully readable narrative that illuminates without sensationalizing..Miles’ exhaustively researched account draws on the writer’s blunt, self-revealing private writings, along with reminiscences from Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other associates, to flesh out Burroughs personality, surroundings, and equally colorful circle of acquaintances…Miles puts it all down with aplomb and deadpan wit, showing the gross-out surrealism of Burroughs’ fiction flowed from the lurid creativity of everyday life.”

Miles has received plaudits from other reviewers. Jeremy Lybarger in Bookforum – “Let me suggest that a fair barometer of biographical writing is how well it resists hyperbole. Miles is successful in this regard, which is impressive given that Burroughs’ life yields so much that is extreme..” Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorkerlikewise, applauds his “always efficient, often elegant prose”, in a judgment that becomes equivocal – “The biography, after its eventual start, becomes rather like an odyssey by subway in the confines of Burroughs’ self-absorption…Miles’ always efficient, often elegant prose eases the ride, but a reader’s attention may grow wan for want of sun.” Henry Allen notes this (inevitable surely?) darkening, deadening effect – “the equivalent of a boy standing by the railroad tracks watching an endless slow freight of depravity rattle past. The monotony becomes hypnotic. The freakishness becomes normal with repetition. You can’t look away.”

Matthew Gilbert in the Boston Globe even sees this as heroic diminishment, on the part of Miles – “Barry Miles huge, engaging vignette-crammed biography, Call Me Burroughs, throws a bit of cold water on all aspects of the Burroughs legend.”, he writes. “It’s a door-stopper of a reminder that while, as a writer Burroughs led us into the eye of the storm of the sub-conscious, as a man he let his family and some of his friends down and spent an inordinate amount of his lifetime scoring and using drugs.” Miles [significantly].. “doesn’t judge his subject, yet Burroughs emerges [in Gilbert’s eyes, at least] as a largely unsympathetic and (finally) sad figure.” Gilbert confesses to being “simultaneously turned-off and fascinated” – (“what many (may) feel while reading his fiction”) – He (Burroughs) was “unerringly selfish and careless, and yet he lived a unique uncompromising life that led to a body of unique uncompromising work”. “With the help of Miles’ extensive research”, he concludes, “he makes for a captivating anti-hero.”

Too extensive? – Noah Cruickshank in his A.V.Club review thinks so – “Figuring out just what to include (and what to leave out) may be the most challenging aspect of  crafting a biography. In Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles, a longtime friend of William S Burroughs opts to keep everything, creating an overstuffed book that chooses minutiae over insight.” He yearns for more “critical detatchment”, recognizing that it (the book) “never ventures into memoir” (neither, as Henry Allen notes, is it “literary or critical biography”, but rather, to use his and Schejldahl’s metaphor, a train ride (but what a train ride! – what sights, smells, and experience!). “Call Me Burroughs”, Jeremy Lybarger writes, “is ultimately a tribute to its subject’s mutability.” “Besides being one of the twentieth-century’s most radical writers, Burroughs was an accomplished visual artist and performer..(the book) is a reminder, if one is needed, that Burroughs work remains essential. His corrosive and wise and inimitably beautiful voice still challenges writers to quit fucking around…”

More Call Me Burroughs reviews here, here & here (Burroughs’ home-town) – and here (Michael Dirda in The Washington Post (“Miles relates Burroughs life in an equally extraordinary biography, a mesmerising page-turner, depicting not just a season in hell but an entire lifetime. It is also, to use words seldom associated with its subject, balanced, measured and even-handed”..”carefully elucidated” and “cleanly written” (throughout its “magisterial”) “gossipy and fact-filled pages”)

Here’s Miles and Beat scholar John Tytell discussing the book last Tuesday at New York’s Strand Bookstore.

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