Cursed from Birth The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr. 

by William S. Burroughs Jr. Soft Skull • Now available

Originally scheduled for publication five years ago, this collection from the only child of William (Naked Lunch) Burroughs includes an unfinished third novel, letters, and cameo Beat appearances by his father and godfather, Allen Ginsberg. The book showcases the talent not of its stated author, who died in 1981, but of its editor, David Ohle, a fiction writer who teaches in Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs Sr.’s adopted hometown.

Considering what the alcoholic, deadbeat Bill Jr. left behind — the proverbial box of cocktail napkins, audiotapes and disorganized notebooks — Ohle constructs a startlingly clear and surprisingly moving narrative about an orphaned boy who grows up to become a dying man.

Several of those whose writings are included here muse that the smell of death was always upon Billy. That one fact is the most central to Jr.’s life story, and remarkably Ohle realizes this and shies away from more overt and dramatic accounts of the father-son relationship or of Billy’s mother’s bizarre death (Burroughs Sr. accidentally shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer during a boozed-up game of “William Tell” when Billy was an infant).

Of course, no one would care about this book if it weren’t for the elder Burroughs. Their letters reveal a screwed-up yet mundane relationship with Billy assuring his father he is looking for work as a trucker, as a cook, that he’s getting along, while Burroughs Sr. replies with distant, impersonal advice like, “The most basic and vital advice that I can give to a young writer is: pay attention to your finances.” But, you’ll learn from Cursed that Burroughs had some actual human emotions, a fact he kept well-hidden during his life.

There’s no answering the question posed by the book: Was Billy a self-absorbed wannabe who refused to take responsibility for his own life, or was he one of the mass of modern men, the homeless, the committed, the permanently stoned who simply could never gain a proper foothold? Ohle doesn’t presume to pretend these writings contain the answers, but the editor has more to say and can say it better than Billy ever could.

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