There was a copy of what was probably
either Naked Lunch or Exterminator! sitting out in my room
"Oh, that guy," my dad said. "He
used to live next door to Aunt Jeanette." That would be his sister.
We'd been to her house several times in my childhood; she'd had the same
place for most of her life.
"Really?" I asked. I was just getting
into Burroughs at the time, so I didn't know a lot of the specifics of
his past, just that he'd done a lot of drugs. I didn't know that
so much from the "about the author" blurb as much as just reading almost
anything he wrote. I mean, if he wasn't high, there was something
seriously wrong with the guy.
My dad told me he didn't know a whole lot
about William S. Burroughs, just that his sister said he was a weird guy
who'd kept to himself most of the time. She remembered him because
he turned out to be famous some years after the fact of his brief residence
in New Orleans. At that point though he hadn't even been published
yet. Today there's a plaque in front of the house indicating
that he'd once lived there.
One night relatively late, Burroughs had
gone over to his neighbor's/my aunt's house and said that he wanted to
sell her the place. He offered her the house for what was a steal,
although it was more money than anyone of modest means (i.e., anyone living
in that neighborhood) would likely have on hand no matter how good the
She told him she would certainly love to
buy the house at that price but that it would take her a few days to get
that amount together for him. Burroughs looked disappointed and left.
He basically rescinded the offer and said he was in a hurry.
I don't know if he ever sold the house
or just abandoned it, but he was gone very quickly after that. I'm
surprised to hear that he owned it outright considering he was only there
a short time. I don't know the state of his finances at this point.
However, he was likely independently wealthy, having been an heir to the
Burroughs Adding Machine fortune, his grandfather's company.
I had always assumed his rush to get out
of town was the consequence of the infamous incident involving him playing
a drunk (or more likely stoned) version of William Tell that resulted in
him putting a bullet through his wife's brain. I wondered how this
had escaped mention in the oral re-telling of my family's encounters with
him. Surely they must have heard a shot, discovered a body, something...
It wasn't until many years later that I
got around to reading Burroughs' first novel, Junky that the precise
chronology of events was assembled. The book is an autobiographical
tale of the author's experiences with heroin (and a few other drugs), and
mentions the time he and his wife Joan Vollmer spent in New Orleans.
I forget the exact circumstances recounted
in that novel, but apparently there was something on the books along the
lines of the "three strikes" law. Whether that was maybe something
as simple as probation or some such, I can't remember anymore. Burroughs
hadn't done serious jail time up to this point, but now he had been busted
once again, and if he stuck around until this went to trial, he was likely
to be sent up this time around.
Before the paperwork caught up with them,
he and Joan split town in a hurry and headed down to Mexico. He stayed
out of prison, but it didn't turn out to be escape for Joan after all.
The combination of easy access to boys and guns in a lawless land overflowing
with tequila turned out to be lethal in her case. Burroughs shot
her dead roughly three years after they fled New Orleans. He received
a two year suspended sentence, but had already returned to the States by
that point anyway.