70 Following



Naked Lunch - William S. Burroughs, James Grauerholz, Barry Miles

”The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED lunch--a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of the fork.” The book title was suggested by Jack Kerouac.


If not for the intervention of William S. Burroughs friends, Naked Lunch would have never seen the light of day. Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac decided to visit Burroughs in Tangiers and see if they could salvage any of the fragmented writing that had been dripping from the mind of Burroughs while he was nursing a addictions to heroin and young male prostitutes. This is not a novel and if you venture into it thinking it is going to be a novel, with a linear plot line, you will be disappointed from the get go. This is a collection of horrors, fears built upon a wicket of paranoia, fantasies shared with brutal honesty, and demented, unhinged sex. Love does not tread through the shadows of this delusional; and yet, dare I say brilliant work of writing.

Burroughs explains:

You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point...I have written many prefaces. They atrophy and amputate spontaneous like the little toe amputates in a West African disease confined to the Negro race and the passing blonde shows her brass ankle as a manicured toe bounces across the club terrace, retrieved and laid at her feet by her Afghan hound...
Naked Lunch is a blueprint, a How-To-Book...Abstract concepts, bare as algebra, narrow down to a black turd or a pair of aging conjones...


Naked Lunch influenced music, most famously: Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. Band names emerged from characters in the book including Steely Dan. References to Burroughs spring up in literature and his influence is apparent in the works of Martin Amis and Will Self. Norman Mailer once referred to Burroughs as, “possibly the only living American writer of genius.” Essayists speculate that Mailer may have only said that to irritate the trio of Roth, Updike, and Bellow. Mailer was always the guy on the outside looking in.

So the Beat Generation ambassadors that sat down and tried to make sense out of the ramblings of the haphazardly collected writings, found among this mess of a manuscript something fresh and scary. The publishers they took it to saw the mess more than they saw the brilliance. Only after a few bits were published in a magazine called Big Table in 1959 and the writing was declared obscene and prosecuted did Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, always spoiling for a fight on censorship, decided to publish. Ahhhh nothing like banning books to generate sales.

Edith Sitwell loftily rejected this “filth”. ”I do not wish to spend the rest of my life with my nose nailed to other people’s lavatories. I prefer Chanel No 5.”

Can’t you just see Burroughs laughing gleefully, rubbing his hands together, at all the press: good, bad, and indifferent? He must have been thrilled that Sitwell even deigned to crack the cover of his book.

You might be still a babe in the woods who has not armchaired travelled down the stench filled alley of a Naked Lunch inspired nightmare. You might be thinking at this point in the review that you might want to read this book. I can assure you that you may NOT want to read this book. If you are a person who intends to be a serious writer then... yes... you really should read this book. It does open up vistas of thought if you can relax your moral compass for about 215 pages. Burroughs was riding fifteen years of addiction and self-indulgence. These writings, to me, were merely an outlet to get some of the muttering ideas out of his head. The process may have curbed the ragged edge of insanity.

I suppose some titillation can be gleaned from these writings. Perversity and obscenity has appeal. Pain has a following. ”She seized a safety pin caked with blood and rust, gouged a great hole in her leg which seemed to hang open like an obscene, festering mouth waiting for unspeakable congress with the dropper which she now plunged out of sight into the gaping wound. But her hideous galvanized need (hunger of insects in dry places) has broken the dropper off deep in the flesh of her ravaged thigh (looking rather like a poster on soil erosion).”

Writing about sex and desire is always of interest.

”I was young myself once and heard the siren call of easy money and women and tight boy-ass and land’s sake don’t get my blood up I am subject to tell a tale make your cock stand up and yip the pink pearly way of young cunt or the lovely brown mucus-covered palpitating tune of the young boy-ass play your cock like a recorder...and when you hit the prostate pearl sharp diamonds gather in the golden lad balls inexorable as a kidney stone.”

At times Burroughs is whimsical.

”The nostalgia fit is on me boys and will out willy silly...boys walk down the carny midway eating pink spun sugar...goose each other at the peep show...jack off in the Ferris wheel...throw sperm at the moon rising red and smoky over the foundries across the river.”

He shares his junky dreams.

”Cooking smells of all countries hang over the City, a haze of opium, hashish, the resinous red smoke of yage, smell of the jungle and salt water and the rotting river and dried excrement and sweat and genitials.”

His terror.

The scream shot out of his flesh through empty locker rooms and barracks, musty resort hotels, and spectral, coughing corridors of T.B. sanitariums, the muttering, hawking, grey fishwater smell of flophouses and Old Men’s Homes, great, dusty customs sheds and warehouses, through broken porticoes and smeared arabesques, iron urinals worn paper thin by the urine of a million fairies, deserted weed-grown privies with a musty smell of shit turning back to the soil, erect wooden phallus on the grave of dying peoples plaintive as leaves in the wind, across the great brown river where whole trees float with green snakes in the branches and sad-eyed lemurs watch the shore out over a vast plain (vulture wings husk in the dry air). The way is strewn with broken condoms and empty H caps and K.Y. tubes squeezed dry as bone meal in the summer sun.”

Anybody want a hit of H?

Burroughs during a William Tell reenactment with his wife, after I’m sure copious amounts of alcohol and chemical assistance had been inhaled, attempted to shoot a drink off her head for the entertainment of their friends. He missed. She died. He called his lawyer.


The quotes I’ve selected to share in this review are nowhere near the worse or most perverse of the writing that will be experienced in this book. If anyone has been offended I am truly sorry, but I do not want people reading a book that is not a good fit for them. Consider these quotes to be a warning sign to decide if you want to avoid more of the same (only much more shocking) or that you are game to see what else Burroughs can fling on you, can etch into your skin, can smear in your hair, can wiggle into your brain, can “hot lick” your...


This book put me in mind of the first time I went to a strip club, which happened to be in Kansas City. At first I was looking around like a farm boy fresh off the back of the turnip truck, jaw dropped, eyeballs extended amazed at all the BOOBS just walking around everywhere. After about a half hour, my brain made adjustments, and it became... well... boring isn’t the right word but the shock value had worn off. I was ready to go somewhere else, do something else. My reaction to this book was similar, even though it was my second trip through it, still for about the first fifty pages I was uncomfortable and second guessing my decision to reread it and horrified at the thought of trying to review it. I hung in there mainly because I’d survived the experience once and had a feeling that I would adjust. As I advanced through the pages, Burroughs would continue to stick needles into my morality, but I was becoming more immune. In fact, at times the book started to feel repetitive. I even reached a point where I could say “hey Burroughs I got it, you can quit hitting me with the hammer now”.

I could have written a series of reviews espousing the reasons for giving this book one star up to five stars. It has had an impact on the literary and musical landscape (art as well if you count his shotgun splatter paintings), and not necessarily a negative one. I landed on four stars because Burroughs, in whatever level of hell he is residing in (if you believe in that stuff), will not get the satisfaction of yet another negative review. Bad press has been very, very good to him.