LEZARD on Burroughs's serious madness in Last Words:
the Final Journals of William Burroughs
is a typical day in the final year of William Burroughs's
life. Early morning: wake up, take methadone. Back to bed
and nap. 9.30am: breakfast. Salted soft-boiled egg, toast,
freshly squeezed lemonade, two cups sweet tea. Feed cats.
Midday: outing to friend's farm for target shooting. Afternoon:
look through gun magazines, read pulp fiction ("his favourite
- science-fiction scenarios of plague ravaging the world,"
according to his amanuensis, Grauerholz). Feed cats. Knife-throwing
practice. 3.30 sharp: cocktail hour. Vodka and Cokes, a joint
or two, a spot of caviar, cat-feeding and diary-writing until
friends arrive around 5 or 6 pm. Feed cats, then bed early,
9 pm or thereabouts.
question is: is this mundane or not? And how much attention
should we pay to the plotless ramblings of a mind - however
original - scrambled on drink and drugs? Well, that describes
the early fiction; with these diaries we can throw senility
into the mix as well. We can see the effects: Grauerholz has
bravely left in Burroughs's numerous repetitions. A vet discovers
an ancient BB gun pellet in one of his cats, and on successive
pages Burroughs mutters away on how he'd like to take a blackjack
to the man who put it there. The angry-old-geezer grumble
is unmistakable. Other things he goes on about more than once:
Shakespeare, the evil American drug laws, lines from Keats
and Yeats, and the slow unravelling of his mind and life.
Only when Burroughs's mind unravels it is not like yours or
mine would be. "Yes, where are the snows of yesteryear.
And the speedballs I useta know?"
any niggles about this book should be sternly faced down,
on the grounds that (a) ignorance of Burroughs leads to an
incomplete understanding of the twentieth century; (b) looking
at death always squarely, he got better as he got older; besides,
why should old men not be mad? and (c) to read these diary
entries from the last year of his life is not only a privilege,
but to encounter, in compressed form, the essence of his writings,
although with rather fewer spurting cocks than in his early
and mid-period work. The entry for March 9, 1997, seems to
boil his whole oeuvre down to six words: "Ultimate horror
story: the centipede prick."
didn't like centipedes. He wondered how anyone could love
them, not a frivolous question if you think, as do many people,
Burroughs included, that God created the world from love.
(He deplores secular humanism "immoderately", which
may come as a surprise to some, who will in turn be consoled
that he hated Bible Belt Christianity, too.) Cats, on the
other hand, he did come to love, and inordinately. Many of
the entries see him blubbing over the death of a cat, which
is affecting enough until the internal evidence allows us
to deduce that there are about half a dozen of the things
keeping him company.
mustn't mock - particularly as the cats clearly stood for
his wife Joan, accidentally killed by Burroughs himself. Kept
alive by guilt, you feel, he was a perfectly capable observer
of his own dissolution. ("But what does an evil old recluse
do? Just sit and be evil?") And, whatever his postures,
he was serious about what he did. "I am a humble practitioner
of the scrivener's trade, a Tech Serg[eant] in the Shakespeare
Squadron, as we called it in the war no one knows about. Except
those who were in it." We salute Tech Sergeant William
S. Burroughs, and suggest that this is a fitting epitaph.