The Junky Next Door

There was a copy of what was probably either Naked Lunch or Exterminator! sitting out in my room one day.

"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 offer was.

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  He basically rescinded the offer and said he was in a hurry.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... hadn't they?

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.

Copyright 2008 Alexplorer.
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