It was San Francisco in the reigning years of California Governor Ronald Reagan. He had opened the doors to the state mental institutions, saying “off you go” to the inhabitants in order to cut spending. Many had no place to go. Some of them had something to say, even if it was to imaginary friends or enemies. Most weren’t only homeless, but strangers in their own land, minds cut off from consensual reality. I’ve often thought that those considered mentally disarranged (I use that word purposely) often have some truths to tell and that they have perceptions of reality we don’t want to admit to and more often don’t want to know.
One day, during that strange time. I was walking downtown near Powell and Market, ground zero for doomsayers, conspiracy theorists and God’s spokesmen, proving again and again that God has many tongues. I was dressed in the best collection of clothing I could muster resembling a suit and tie. I had a job interview. A man came running up to me, screaming. He pointed and yelled as if he were the first to spot a rare bird: “Bourgeois Pouf.” It wasn’t surprise on his part, but anger. At me. “I’m going to strangle you with your tie.” He moved in my direction, a barking dog, (“pouf! pouf’!”) disturbed by my presence in the universe but obviously wary as well. If I ran, would he gain confidence and follow? Attack? I had no idea what was inside his mind or in the pockets of his heavy coat. I gambled, stepped toward him. He fled. I was fortunate. There was bluffery in my pouffery.
What has troubled me for years was not the potential physical threat. It was the taunt, “bourgeois pouf” that has stayed with me. Why? Because there’s some truth in it.
I relate this personal moment here because the intruder was disruptive, and his rants came from someone most likely disturbed in both meanings of the word. I also comment here because William S. Burroughs, who would have turned 100 earlier this year, was disruptive and disturbed, perhaps in both senses of the word. And, amidst streams of his personal pornography, there’s truth in it.
Wild Boys is a product of this, “father of the beats,” who was allowed to remain at large. Unlike others who might have unfortunate DNA or tragic experiences in his youth, I get the impression Burroughs sought insanity in much the same way “Papa” Hemingway sought adventure. Manhood, or at least fearlessness, was on the line. and must be tested. Hemingway’s tests, all designed to show what a spectacular specimen of male humanity he was, was the source of his art and the basis for his fame. Their respective approaches, Hemingway facing physical danger and Burroughs mental, were the means to get high, and enhance perception. The two writers are similar in other ways. Shotguns figure prominently in their lives. Both of them revolutionized style. Hemingway set up the new rules. Burroughs broke them all. Both of them became larger than life, certainly larger characters on the world stage than any living writer you can think of. (Where have all the outrageous writers gone?)
For Hemingway the world was linear, understandable, romantic. And he had a talent for making it accessible. Hemingway went to war, faced an angry bull and dabbled in the art of boxing. He told those kinds of stories. Burroughs was willing to face stark-raving madness. He could have no idea what the various drugs he seemed to toy with would do to him. He did them because he was brave? Psychotic? Don’t know. He did them. He told those stories.
Wild Boys is one of them. Chunks of Dante-esque vision mixed with sexual fantasy are pieced together — depending on your politics and proclivities — in a fascinating, vivid set of dreams. He rides somewhere in the vanguard of those who write to shock and horrify. As we read, we also move from format to format, from a jagged, almost random selection of words to the “proper” style we might expect from an author in our English literature courses. Then back again. We engage in what is not so much a stream of consciousness, but the rapids.
In Wild Boys, the main thread is the story of rebellious youth battling fascism, fascism in the form of all authority, especially government and religion. It’s now trending apocalyptic setting makes the book seem like it was written yesterday.
There was serious consideration given to making Wild Boys a pornographic movie with Duran, Duran interested in the soundtrack. It didn’t happen. However Duran Duran did make an MTV video of Wild Boys. I’m not sure what Burroughs purists think of it, but this is one of my favorites:
Hemingway influenced American literature in a monumental way. But Burroughs, who never had the sales and celebrity of, or interest in, the more conventional approach nonetheless influenced the influencers and is doing so today. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and many other writers and poets journeyed to Morocco to meet the expatriate and Beat Elder. David Bowie owed his “Ziggy Stardust” days” to Burroughs. Jim Morrison and the Doors were also inspired by the man who wrote Naked Lunch and who appeared to be battling his own demons if in fact he had them, with a kind of cold nonchalance. Hunter Thompson, who also never met a mind-altering drug he didn’t take, reportedly drove all the way to Lawrence, Kansas to give his mentor a shotgun. Hemingway influenced a style of writing. Burroughs challenged a way of thinking.
Burroughs spent his last years firing his shotgun at paint cans that would then explode, splashing color on plywood. Hemingway used his shotgun to end his life.