February 5, 2014 would have marked William S. Burroughs’s one-hundredth birthday. Sadly, the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overshadowed the centenary. Burroughs — famous Beat author, accidental murderer, expatriate, icon for Punk musicians, and an early pioneer of gay liberation — struggled with numerous addictions throughout his life. At the time of his death, at the age of 83 in 1997, he was on methadone, a substitute drug to mitigate heroin withdrawal. I will soon talk about a neglected Burroughs work that I think deserves greater attention.
The young, financially well-off Burroughs – his family had sold their rights to the Burroughs Adding Machine before the Stock Market Crash – who lived on a monthly allowance of $200, which was big money then, had attended Harvard, studied medicine in Vienna, and lived a hobo’s existence of dead-end jobs, until 1943 when he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The second pivotal movement of his life occurred on the night of September 6, 1951 in Mexico, when a party-trick turned fatal. Instead of an apple on her head, Joan Vollmer had balanced a water tumbler. Burroughs missed and shot his wife in the head. His heroin to her Benzedrine should have said that they were doomed from the start. WSB was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and given a two-year suspended sentence. Burroughs wrote in the introduction to his novel Queer (1953) “the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”
Write his way out of it he did, indeed, and with critical success. Naked Lunch (1959) put WSB on the map, so to speak, and the obscenity trial in its wake, which he and his publisher won, was the kind of publicity that secured a literary reputation. In Naked Lunch, a man teaches a bodily orifice to speak. The story starts out funny and raw, but quickly devolves into a nightmarish struggle between appetites and self-control; body over mind and the body wins. Novels about drugs and homosexuality were taboo in late-fifties America. Burroughs, at first a closeted gay man, lived in an era when homosexuality was considered a form of mental illness.
In 1969, Burroughs offered up to readers what I think is a neglected masterpiece: The Last Words of Dutch Schultz with had the intriguing subtitle “A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script.” No film was ever made, though. His kinky humor is there in the script and so is the nightmare, but earlier reviewers had missed one crucial fact: Burroughs had used the last words of the gangster Arthur “Dutch” Flegenheimer verbatim, a mere 2,000 of them, which police stenographers had captured at his bedside after he had been shot at the Palace Chophouse in Newark in October, 1935. The cops had hoped to learn who had shot Dutch and his three colleagues. Tough guy to the end, Dutch was no rat.
There is a famous photo of Dutch face down at his table, which would lead any viewer to conclude that he was dead. Wrong. Dutch was shot in the men’s room and, not wanting to die on a bathroom floor, staggered out to his table, sat down, and requested someone call him an ambulance. That someone was Schultz’s bodyguard, “Lulu” Rosencrantz, who was mortally wounded, and like a scene out of a black comedy, the big man gets up off of the floor, had staggered over to the barkeep, who was hiding under the counter, and demands change for a quarter so he can use the phone for an ambulance. Dutch had a brandy and tipped the medic $10,000 to get the best care. Dutch would die two days later.
Burroughs took the transcript and crafted a narrative from Dutch’s humorous, stream-of-consciousness ramblings and moments of lucidity. There are cracks about dogs and navy beans. Sure, WSB provides the back-story of the Dutchman’s rise from thug to Emperor of Beer Suds and the Harlem Numbers Racket. We get the deal-making, back-stabbing power-plays, the rogue’s gallery of criminals, including Bo Weinberg, whom E.L. Doctorow would depict ready for his one-way swim in concrete shoes in the opening pages of Billy Bathgate. One expects to hear a dying man’s non-sequiturs, the cliché of the ‘life flashing before one’s eyes,’ but WSB goes beyond that. Way beyond.
The script layout is in two columns. Burroughs imagines what the audience should see, with instructions to the cameraman in the left column while, in the right column are Dutch’s actual words, at least for the hospital scenes. The left side of the page becomes a running commentary, a call-and-response interaction with the dialog on the right. The reader really gets a glimpse of WSB’s extraordinary command of cinematography. He frames each scene with a painter’s eye for detail. The dying man’s words are what they are from the official transcript, but the genius is in how Burroughs plays the forensic writer who fabricates scenes in a logical yet illogical, coherent yet incoherent mélange of sights, sounds, and utterances.
WSB creates a memorable character named The Whisperer, who speaks without moving his lips; he uses a tape recorder and his voice sounds like Dutch’s. He is Kafka creepy, uncanny. The Whisperer can also speak backwards. He looks like a “grey, anonymous corpse.” It is as if WSB had created a Marvel Comics character, but has him emerge from a drug-induced vision.
Photographs of Dutch Schultz litter the pages, including the dead Dutchman, the German-Jew who died Catholic, sins expunged with Last Rites, the wife in the hallway, father to one son, and millions supposedly locked away in a water-proof safe in the Catskills. It is dark, disturbing, and very gothic in the way only Uncle Bill could write it.