Christopher Owens reviews a book about William Burroughs and the death of Joan Vollmer.
I imagine that, for the majority, the concept of being able to write and create something from within yourself is an unfathomable achievement. Something reserved for geniuses and intellects who are above and beyond the proletariat. Hence, if they knew where the ideas emerged from, the same proletariat would be able to reach out and create something themselves.
The plain truth is that, for the vast majority of writers, it is an intrinsic part of them. Something that comes as naturally as brushing your teeth or having a wank. Because of that, it's difficult to describe the process to someone else (and even to other writers). Hanif Kureshi has talked about how staring out the window has been beneficial to his writing, Immanuel Kant walked the same routes day in and out and Charles Bukowski mined his time working as a postman as well as his alcohol consumption for his timeless writing.
In the case of William Burroughs, who helped reinvent the novel, it came out of murder and personal tragedy in a foreign land. An act that has been mythologised and reinterpreted as the decades have gone on, glossing over the sordid scene and the mournful aftermath.
This, of course, is the death of Joan Vollmer. Shot and killed by a drunken Burroughs in a game of William Tell gone wrong, she has often been reduced in retellings as a hapless victim, often through the guise of Burroughs' misogyny. So it's to Jorge Garcia Robles' credit that he has gone through this period and found angles and characters who would subsequently influence Burroughs' outlook.
Beginning in 1943, with Burroughs befriending Allen Ginsberg, meeting Jack Kerouac and Joan herself, the book follows the odd couple of Burroughs and Vollmer as they travel from place to place with their children before finally settling in Mexico to indulge themselves in drink and drug abuse while writing his first proper novel, Junkie.
It is often claimed that the characteristics of a place can deeply influence the creative process. It certainly seems to have been the case for Burroughs and it's easy to see why that would be the case: the thin (almost non-existent) line between civilised society and open corruption (personified by Lola La Chata, a notorious drug dealer), the seeming lack of interest in other people's business and the cheapness of the place.
So it makes sense that Burroughs would find himself being shaped by these surroundings, solidifying his libertarian view of the world into something that became a hatred of conformity. However, it's clear that this period also highlighted the selfish, narcissistic aspects of his personality. Indeed, at various points, he comes across just how you have always envisaged him: a grumpy bastard constantly drunk or high, waving a gun about while ranting about the government taking away his rights.
With that in mind, it's genuinely surprising that he didn't kill or seriously injure other people as well.
Joan herself comes across as a desperately sad person. One who is vastly intelligent (more so than her peers) but reduces her lot in life to being a pill popping drunk. A telling example comes from Ginsberg who paid her a visit while Burroughs was off in the jungle:
After several tears of not seeing Joan, Ginsberg saw that she had deteriorated, withered. "She'll be giving you competition soon," he told her upon noticing the girl's [Joan's daughter] blossoming beauty. "Oh, I'm out of the running," responded Joan, looking out the corner of her eye at the bottle of tequila that stood on the table...Ginsberg and Lucien were surprised by Joan's indifference - feigned - towards Bill's absence. She hardly mentioned him...
This bizarre relationship (she was already married, he was gay) seemed to be based on a genuine intellectual level (apparently, the two could guess what the other was thinking) and a hatred of conformity. However, where I must criticise Robles is when he goes along with the assertion (put forward by others) that Joan had a death wish and that Burroughs was the one destined to free her from this world.
Although her behaviour does seem to support the idea of a death wish, it absolves Burroughs of any culpability of the crime (regardless of whether it was an accident or not). Libertarians like Burroughs are all too happy to proclaim that they should be allowed to run their own lives without interference, but are often found wanting when it comes to taking responsibility for actions such as Joan's death. Although, in fairness to Burroughs, he did write (in Queer, a novel undeniably influenced by his time in Mexico) that he was '...forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death...'
For an insight into one of the most important writers of the 20th century, The Stray Bullet does a remarkable job, and will leave you with a lingering melancholia over how genius, ignorance, nihilism and arseholeism can often be the making of an artist for their "ideas."
Jorge Garcia Robles , 2013, The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico. University Of Minnesota Press. ISBN-13: 978-0816680634
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.