November 11th, 2010 / 11:24 am
Craft Notes

“Fuck now talk later”: Revisiting Burroughs’s The Wild Boys & why anything at all

I realized last night how I’ve never gotten over William Burroughs; how maybe more than any syllable maker I’ve read in my life it’s been him I’ve been mimicking in mind to large degree; him one of the first of all those I still read now still coming out since seventeen in more sentences than I should like to admit; how is indexed me somehow; how I could argue with myself that if every word I write is trying to match against or kill some father, it is him, even if by now I can’t always actually remember a lot about what he wrote beyond textures, images, residues, ideas.

I read Naked Lunch the first time having got caught gut-deep in the Beats, like so many did, when a friend brought a tape of Ginsberg reading “America” in to play for our American Lit class in 10th grade. We had to get permission slips signed before we were allowed to listen because he dropped the F-bomb and dissed on everything seemingly elemental about the suburban neighborhoods surrounding Joseph Wheeler High School (named, I heard whispered more than a few times back then, for a founding member of the Klan). The high school I went to was a weird mix of hood and upper middle class; there were fights at least a couple times a week; I vividly remember walking one day to the senior lot and seeing a truckbed full of dudes in masks with weapons coasting through without an inch of other motion: they didn’t find who they were looking for; or maybe they were simply there to be an image burned into my head. But more than them, and more than many things, there were these freakshows of strange language suddenly appearing in the half-slept muddle of all those other high school era books.

From my hard obsession on with Ginsberg, reading his Collected Poems back to back to back, I started going to a bookstore in downtown that specialized in Beat shit, and somehow ended up with Naked Lunch. I was 17. I read it cover to cover in the bathtub one night. I was naked in the light inside the house. This book all about drugs and violent fucking and machine language and the grotesque and collisions of image and conceptual zombies with names like The Lobotomy Kid and Leif the Unlucky and of course Dr. Benway; things I had no idea about, common life element, no recognition in as my humanity or reality or anywhere near it, or even what I would in practice in tactile life become: it slew my head. I don’t think I even realized anything else about it, not even being shocked or lifted up, but just like one of those moments taking something in that even if it doesn’t end up being you or part about you or something you even learn to like, you will remember how it came.

I didn’t read Burroughs for several years after that. I don’t know how I got back into him again. Maybe I was bored and found them in a store. Regardless, somehow I ended up with the books comprising the Nova trilogy; The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. I was living in a bedroom in a basement of a friend’s house that had no windows and no doors to the outside. One big synthetic panel in the ceiling lit me. The other rooms down there weren’t finished. The dad of my friend would park weird foreign cars he was buying and selling in the garage beside my room; every week or two I’d come out and see another weird machine. Anyway, I read those three in the same day, back to back on the bed in the no light room; or maybe it was different days. Or maybe it was days apart. In my mind it’s as if I read them all at once. I have a list on my computer. I could look. I’ve been writing down every book I’ve read for the past ten years. I don’t want to look. The way they came in was how they are there now. One day I’ll figure it out; or not.

In this same space too I read The Wild Boys, which is the one of Bill’s if I had to pick one it would be the one I picked and wrote my name on in the inside flap. Maybe I even read The Wild Boys before the other three; the time then is so muddled; so a block rather than a thread. And yet, despite much of it flooding together, the way even things I read just yesterday do today, there are scenes and things in The Wild Boys that I remember as well as anything I’ve ever read, as much as I remember anything. Maybe the image of all books ever I remember most is in here too: near the end of the novel, where the boys are knocking around in these suburban houses like the ones I grew up in but jacked and full of trash and jacking off, they come out into the street and there is another boy who pulls up before them on his bike. I can remember without looking now the way Burroughs describes him pulling up in a U-turn, half naked and with weird description of the color of what little he’s wearing against his skin. It’s a super brief image. It functions in no way: like much of Burroughs’s glyphs, they sink into the muck and light of the whole assemblage, becoming instantly another part of a symbiotic, spinning, paranoid orgasm wheel. In my mind this U-turn, though, just fucking shakes. I can hear that U-turn, the rubber on the weird asphalt that Burroughs doesn’t even bother to describe, the color of the house, the air around the house; it’s all in there, rammed.

That feeling, and the overall destructive, destroying structure and noise and muck and making of the whole of Burroughs’s work, just, I realized tonight, has been on my back since then and forward, no matter what else I’ve taken in. This book, to me young, and now, was not only hyper-magick for how arcane and forbidden and otherworldly and cryptic it could seem, but for the weird other territory it managed to accumulate inside me without the grip of recognition or particular friction or even, even to this day, knowing why.

And even more confusing: in memory, the thing is not the thing quite inside my mind as on the page at all. Not wrong or shuddery, the way some thing you like young and come back to seem so off from how you’ve changed it’s like you were never that other person at all; but simply, some other kind of thing. Even though I’d reread Burroughs over the years, and oddly always finding it at lengths more volatile and relevant today than even then (I mean, shit, the man was so ahead of his time, and in some ways is still ahead of ours), I hadn’t gone back and read that specific singular scene in a while, until tonight. As I thought, and am okay with, the scene plays out differently, much more simply than I recalled.

We were walking down a long avenue littered with palm branches. Suddenly the air was full of robins thousands of them settling in the ruined gardens perching on the empty houses splashing in bird baths full of rain water. A boy on a red bicycle flashed past. He made a wide U-turn and pulled in to the curb beside us. He was naked except for a jockstrap, belt and flexible black shoes his flesh red as terra cotta smooth poreless skin tight over the cheekbones deep-set black eyes and a casque of black hair. At his belt was an eighteen-inch bowie knife with knuckle-duster handle. He said no word of greeting. He sat there one foot on the curb looking at Dib. His ears which stuck out from the head trembled slightly and his eyes glistened. He licked his lips and said one word in a language unknown to me. The Dib nodded matter of factly. He turned to me. “He very hot. Been riding three days. Fuck now talk later.”

Reading this again all this time later kind of felt like coming into a house. As much as the actual sentences, and hell, even most of the image, is not at all the way I’d held it in my head; the robins and the rain water and the speech; all I’d really held on to was the U-turn and the leaning of the body on the bike, something about color, something about houses. If anything this image is supremely tame compared to the onslaught of atrocity and grime and flesh acts and prismatic choppy language so much of this book and Burroughs’s corpus are made up of. And yet it seems exactly right. It seems like I’ve been writing at this paragraph for some time, and even in aim of practice, at the white of screens. Fuck now talk later. What else could I want about an approach for making; what else has it seemed like sitting days and days pressing the same buttons in slightly different patterns constantly if in some kind of trance or stupid swoon. Fucking the machine, fucking a chemical of idea, fucking in silence, pauses and turns. He very hot.

Regardless of how it comes off now in rereading, the image of what I’ve had is still the same. If anything now there are two images. And anyway, inside the book, the moment goes away like any silence or fucking is meant to too. The kid on the bike, the way he lurches into the organism of the story and the sentence and the image decimates it and excites it and fucks it and then instantly extract, disappearing into the roil: the next image begins, and that is quickly too, gone. Motion. Making of power systems. Making languagefuck.

This, as I remember, as I hold it in me, more than human, more than what a day is; all those dead days; is endless electricity of text; this act, on me, and in me, of the image of the sentence, for my life, was punk as fuck; this motivated me as a teenager at a technical college studying computer science and playing in weird bands to want to figure out how to approach the feeling in the real. Burroughs got me scribbling after my own holes in air and shifting buildings and memory chemicals weird machines. When he died in 1997 I remember sobbing, and feeling stupid for sobbing, writing a shitty eulogy in verse. Sometime around then I even had a dream about him, one that also still sticks with me these years later, of us wrestling in the aisle of a drug store laughing and knocking shit over, then later sitting on the curb outside, having bought candy and us eating, and me telling him The Wild Boys is my favorite book, and how he touched my leg not in the way he might have if I’d met him but as a friend and smiled without ego and said, “Thank you kindly.” He, here, somehow as a person, burned beside, coupled with whatever else you’d like to append. It doesn’t feel sexualized, in practice; it feels like life.

Though it wouldn’t be until later, when I read Wallace, Infinite Jest, that the glyph of Burroughs moved from something I could daze and freak in became something less affective and more cerebral, emotional, derivating in its own light; such a throat squeezer there suddenly was no other way; Burroughs was the father of the father of the father of what has, some ten or what years later, becomes my consumer of all-time; what I’m sitting in the room for; a lot of days, no joke, why I move. Whether I should thank him or want to smash his head is another question.

Ahh, fuck it. Thanks, Bill.

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  1. Tony O'Neill

      Hey Blake

      Really good piece, enjoyed it very much. I have a great love and admiration of Burroughs too, wrote about my first exposure to Naked Lunch over at 2 Guys One Book. Here’s a link in case your interested, I’m probably much more eloquent there than I would be here.'neill

  2. Anonymous

      I’ve been waiting to read this for some time.

      parental fuck jam.

  3. stephen

      i enjoyed this.

      i would be interested in reading other people’s accounts of the first author to excite and inspire them.

  4. mimi

      I went through a serious Elie Wiesel/Jerzy Kosinksi phase my sophomore year in high school. I can remember vividly reading The Painted Bird at an empty lunch table in the cafeteria during my ‘study hall’ and being totally transported to another, very different place.
      The first book to ever excite me, stephen, was One By Sea by Scott Corbett, in sixth grade.

  5. jesusangelgarcia

      Love your last question, Blake. Your other words: a blazing exegesis. I remember stumbling upon Junky in the library in early college after binging on the Beats in high school. Then Naked Lunch. I never read more Burroughs. The voice on the page seared me. I was probably freaked out. Then there was the haunting spoken word CD and that thing w/ Cobain. I remember hearing Burroughs in Scorch Atlas. Your words now make me want to read The Wild Boys. Fuck now talk later makes way more sense to me now than it would have when I was younger. Fuck is animal, fearless, ferocious — a mantra, if balanced with One Mind, I think. Fuck is in the rhythm of (Burroughs’) language. This is a great reminder. Thanks for the imagery and the sound. The sun just broke through the clouds. It’s gonna be a good day.

  6. goner

      This was really great. I love the imagery of you in that basement of your friend’s house. It brings back memories of a friend I once had who was also a huge Burroughs fan. It’s nice to see a young writer today cite Burroughs as a significant influence on his own work. Bravo.

      And that picture of Burroughs in front of the ‘Danger’ sign is so perfect. I think we’re missing that danger in literature today. There’s something to be said for writing from the perspective of self-destruction. I wish more young writers were less safe.

  7. Blake Butler

      thanks stephen; me too, please anybody share

  8. Charles Dodd White

      This might sound goofy and old fashioned, but Joseph Conrad was that writer for me, especially LORD JIM. The depth of character and the way in which the reader was forced to descend into the complications of that dynamic as it developed throughout the story. Add to that, the hard but intricate language and the sense that a more forbidding, mystic world was impinging on the surface of the narrative, and I felt like I’d found something worth wrestling with.

  9. lorian long

      ‘paranoid orgasm wheel’

      this piece is real, blake. damn. i feel ‘excited about literature again’ well since like 2 hours ago.

  10. Tony O'Neill

      Hey Blake

      Really good piece, enjoyed it very much. I have a great love and admiration of Burroughs too, wrote about my first exposure to Naked Lunch over at 2 Guys One Book. Here’s a link in case your interested, I’m probably much more eloquent there than I would be here.'neill

  11. Tony O'Neill

      Duh, three guys one book.

  12. Guest

      I enjoyed this also. I really loved “Junky” and his factualism-type writing, but when I tried to read “Naked Lunch” as a teen, I couldn’t understand what was going on past pg. 70 because he doesn’t seem to use conventional methods of clue-ing in the reader to what is going on, using a more inner, deeper mode, which can be hard to follow, but ultimately a brilliant work of art. This makes me want to try his Nova books, or some of his sci-fi-ish things. I read his journal from his last year. The line, “Love is the greatest opiate” is awesome; probably miss quoted. Also Duran Duran had a song and video called “the Wild Boys” inspired by Burroughs. Thanks for writing this. Enjoyed.

  13. Tadd Adcox

      Yes. All of this. Absolutely.

  14. Bill

      What a great piece, Blake. I’ll be spending some quality time with my copy of Wild Boys again. It was a transformative book for me, as was Infinite Jest.

      Oddly enough, I’ve always found Naked Lunch to be a hard slog. Maybe I have a birth defect.

      Argh, not Duran Duran, please.

  15. jereme_dean

      I’ve been waiting to read this for some time.

      parental fuck jam.

  16. jereme_dean


      Julie Andrews Edwards.

      Also, I wept when Sam Kinison died.

  17. M Kitchell

      burroughs was weirdly influential on me, i think, but in a way where, okay, so i was never really into the beats as much as i was into the idea of the beats, and i never read ginsberg and when i tried to read kerouac i got so mega bored, but then i found out that burroughs was a fag, and being, at the time, closeted but not really i mean my 25 high school friends knew but that was it, sophomore in high school, i was like yes that i want to read that. so i got exterminator from the library and was confused but interested, and then i checked out the burroughs reader and whenever i would try to read it in school it was really difficult because i would just keep getting boners and it was not cool to be getting boners in school when you’re 15 so eventually i stopped reading it because i was doing most of my reading at school at this point and i knew i would never finish the book if it kept giving me boners so i just gave up, i guess. but then over the summer i checked out the place of dead roads because the cover held some specific allure but i never finished it, i kept getting about 100 pages in and then finding it overdue, and i checked it out like 5 times and this kept happening, and then it disappeared from the library and i never finished it until last year, actually three years after i bought the damn thing, but i couldn’t actually read it again until i had tracked down a copy that had the same cover as the copy i had tried to read over and over again a decade ago

  18. stephen

      cool, blake, mimi, jereme.

      the first book to excite me was “the catcher in the rye,” because it made me laugh so much, and because it seemed poignant to me (and has grown in poignancy with re-reading). i was attracted to the voice and to the personality of the narrator and the tone of his narration. it seemed like he was my friend or someone’s older brother, and his words seemed a little bit sarcastic, a little bit leaving things, emotions out, but them still being there. as i’ve gotten older and read the rest of his books (“franny and zooey” and “seymour: an introduction,” in particular) and learned more about salinger, i’m only more impressed. i think his comedy is sad and loving. i think his work is humble but primarily interested in the most difficult things. while he didn’t provide answers, he did suggest ways to greater joy.

      salinger focuses, with precision, on details, objects, actions, human behavior, and thoughts, but rests lightly on them as in meditation. to feel any of what the writer may have felt seems to require openness, a sense of humor, and a similar willingness to focus and rest lightly.

  19. Kevin

      Wow, this really makes me want to go back and read Burroughs – I’d say it’s been at least ten years. I’ve never read The Wild Boys but that one paragraph showed me I have to. As far as writers who tore my head apart and put it back together in a way I never knew possible – when I was around 16 I became obsessed with Henry Miller. Typical enough, I guess, but Tropic of Cancer changed everything for me. And come to think of it, I haven’t read that in at least ten years either. Looks like I’ve got some reading to do. Good piece.

  20. Blake Butler

      young book boners are road signs to greatness/where you should be going

  21. lorian long

      i remember taking erin keaton’s copy of allen ginsberg’s collected poems on a vacation with my family to st. thomas. it was a big red book, my dad kept saying ‘go fuck yourself with your atom bomb’ in the swimming pool on the beach. my mom got mad. ginsberg actually lead me to didion, not the beats, and it wasn’t until college when i found burroughs in a course on ‘postermodern literature.’ but i remember reading play it as it lays and wearing big sunglasses to high school, wishing it was easier to get pain pills and vodka in perrysburg, ohio. god i loved that book. i picked it up again 5 years ago and found it still aches, but in new places.

  22. Abigwind

      it’s a sad that we’re coerced to feel guilty or ashamed for liking an author at a young age. blake, you start with “i’ve never gotten over” as if you needed to purge yourself of a disease. it’s obvious from this post that you don’t feel that way, and i’m just mincing words, but fuck, why can’t an adult like a childhood/teenage/college favorite? i still reread A Phantom’s Tollbooth to feel a different world. i understand the weight of experience shifts values, beliefs, aesthetics, but i’ve found that even if you have changed, a familiar book will at the very least remind you of what you’ve lost.

  23. Elle

      I’d forgotten how pretty you write. It’s like a catholic choir boy except all words.

  24. Blake Butler

      i’m not ashamed of it at all, it’s just that often things i remember loving don’t hold up the way others do. burroughs actually feels even more relevant to me now than he did then. but like with music i liked as a teenager, shudder. the way your mind changes over time in relation to what you like is compelling, and it’s nice having lifetime relationships with certain entities, but many aren’t conducive to such, i think. more are just eras. the best are the long ones.

  25. Blake Butler

      thanks elle, that is kind :)

  26. Jeff

      Nice piece, Blake – that opening chapter of “Wild Boys” is the section that’s burned into my brain for whatever reason. I recall reading it twice in a row, wondering if there was any reason to put pen to paper again. The rest of the book is a bit of blur, a reason to revisit.

      I noticed there’s some supposedly complete text of Naked Lunch floating around now. Do you – or anyone else – know how it’s different from the version that was previously available? Is it really more complete/better/worth checking out? Or just some marketing initiative?

  27. jesusangelgarcia
  28. Thomas Baughman

      i met Burroughs once. He was very gentlemanly.

  29. Ken Baumann

      A Confederacy of Dunces. I read it for AR (; it was a highschool level book that was worth about 12 points, coded green maybe, or brown, with a little round sticker; the color code is still in me big time. (edit: I found an AR booksearch; it is now worth/maybe was then worth 20 points: I needed 25 points per month. I often tried for more. I remember this girl, Hilary, who was the only one in the entire middle school who read more than me; she’d get 45, 60 points a month seemingly every month. I remember she always read the fattest books, but they were always these sixth grade reading level books but they were so long they accrued her like 20 points per go. I graduated from plowing through the Hardy Boys books (5 points each; reading one every two days and immediately testing and getting another from the library) to A Confederacy of Dunces, which was the first senior level AR book that I tried (I think; it’s all so blurred; I can see the shelves of that first school library exactly, and know where each book I read over the next two years was, but cannot remember the order of the books). The book pulled me in such an odd way; I remember feeling like I was reading something that should not AT ALL be in the school library, and that as I read I felt myself realizing that this was so beyond the stuff we read from the textbooks, that this was some secret tome that I knew I didn’t absorb fully even if I completely comprehended it’s vocabulary; I remember where I was when I read it, what desk, how I leaned over the book, how I stared blankly at Hilary when she asked me what I was reading with a some-concerned-mostly-interested look, as if I not only did not know how to describe it but knew that I shouldn’t, not yet. I laughed so much. The book was sexy. I barely talked to anyone about it. I remember learning the author had killed himself after it had been rejected by a ton of publishers and that his mom had submitted it, then, after his death, and how that lead to that prize badge on the cover. I knew that his mom felt like my mom. I remember certain scenes: Ignatius selling hotdogs on the street, wiping his mustache, talking about the Wheel of Fate, his masturbation, the black guy who worked in the bar with the redhead, those bar scenes full of sweeping, the empty red bar, the rich wife and business man husband and their huge bay-windowed house, looking over water, and the wife getting machined by the belt-loop fat shakeaway thing, and the feeling of triumph and huge joy at the end, the feeling of motion and total freedom. That book. And then I moved through the highschool AR books, not for points mainly anymore.

  30. darby

      wow yeah, me too, confederacy of dunces. it was the first book book i read read, and up till then had only read like stephen king mostly because thats all i thought existed, and then i was taking a required lit course and found myself being more interested in like the flannery o’connor stories we were reading and decided there were other things to read out there apparently. i didnt know where to start so i found a list of books that had won pulitzers and confederecy of dunces had the most appealing title so i bought and read it and that was it.

  31. Kevin Lincoln

      Yeah Blake this was the best; makes me want to read Burroughs before I get any older and still haven’t read any Burroughs. Will do soon. First author that I can remember being completely captivated/fixated by was Roth, starting when I was 16: learned from him a totally different way of considering religion, community, society, literature, so on. Then Gass and Markson, which both happened this summer: those are the first two writers since finding Roth that made me consider maybe he wasn’t untouchable.

  32. Christopher Higgs

      Fantastic post, Blake. The Wild Boys is one of Burroughs’s I haven’t read. Will now put it on my list. I agree with you wholeheartedly when you say “the man was so ahead of his time, and in some ways is still ahead of ours” — yes! I feel this way about Gertrude Stein, too.

      Got me thinking…was there one specific book? I mean, I’ve mentioned before how I got interested in reading because of Jim Morrison, how I made a list of books Morrison loved and then went and got them and read them…I should find that list and do a post on it….you’ve inspired me.

  33. jesusangelgarcia

      I remember this older guy in an English class in college who said if I was into Kerouac I had to read Miller. He was right. I started w/ Tropic of Cancer, but Capricorn is what pushed me over the top. I read almost everything by him after that. It’s been years, too. But I’m sure the influence runs deep. If nothing else, Henry Miller’s writing was fearless.

      As far as first freakouts: William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud. Yeah, I used to “be a poet.”

  34. jesusangelgarcia

      Ha, Christopher! I knew I wasn’t alone. That’s how I found Blake and Huxley and Rimbaud, etc. No One Here Gets Out Alive. I still get a warm, way drunk, about-to-puke feeling when I listen to the Doors.

      I found this tune on YouTube a few months back that killed me: It’s the band’s first live show in San Francisco in 1967. Morrison’s voice sounds almost vulnerable on this track. Haunting. I love the phrasing, much different from the studio version.

      Per Abigwind’s comment above: I have no problem w/ the books and records (yeah, vinyl) I used to live in as a kid. There’s still something there, and the emotional connects to youthful memories (not always pleasant by any means) are potent.

  35. Kevin

      I read everything I could find by Miller too. As fast as I could. And he led me to writers I’d never heard of (I was 16, I think) like Knut Hamsun, Blaise Cendrars, plenty of others. Really opened things up for me. I remember liking Kerouac but not as much as I hoped I would. A little too earnest or something. Miller was fun though. He showed you could break all the rules and get away with it – if you were good enough, and not boring, you could write however and whatever you wanted. (Oddly enough, I was really into Maugham at the time too.)

  36. JimR

      Burroughs, hell yes. For many years I had Old Bill on my answering machine. It was from the movie Kansas, the scene where Bill is shooting his gun in the garage and Crispin Glover walks up asks if Jim is there to which Bill replies: “Jim got kicked in the head by horse back in February. He went around killing horses for a while. Then he ate the insides of a clock and he died.” The first time my mother heard it she got upset, wondering what kind of “weird people” I was hanging out with.

  37. jesusangelgarcia

      I found Hunger in a bookshop just a couple of years ago. Classic.

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  39. Erin

      I don’t remember lending the Ginsberg book to you, Lo, but I’m glad it happened. I wish it would’ve led me to Dideon but I just stuck on it for a long time. I read Carolyn Cassidy’s Off the Road right before it, and got to know dude love and things erotic, as well as who the beats were before I read anything by them. Her book isn’t awesome, but the stories are, so it served its porpoise. I still have the Ginsberg book, Lori (duh) and only last week I tore the inscription on the first page out of it (I don’t know that you recall) and threw it away, hard, lest it be tainted (even though the book is already full of taints).

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