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New William S. Burroughs bio gets lost in minutiae

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The question of relevance is always an issue in biography. Does one particular aspect of the subject’s life manage to convey an important fact? Does it fit in with the larger themes the biographer weaves throughout the life in question? Figuring out just what to include (and what to leave out) may be the most challenging aspect of crafting a biography. In Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles, a longtime friend of William S. Burroughs, opts to keep everything, creating an overstuffed book that chooses minutiae over insight.


Few American writers have had such a wide breadth of influence as Burroughs, and his long-lasting relationships with such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg and artist Francis Bacon are legendary in the literary world. A novelist who rarely wrote anything that could be adequately described as “a novel,” Burroughs pushed past formal boundaries, creating grotesque, dreamlike “sets” that combined sex, drugs, technology, paranoia, and the English literary tradition into one beautiful, soupy mess. A mess himself, Burroughs would be worth a biography for his strange, fascinating life, even without his prestigious body of work.

Miles captures that life down to the tiniest detail, from the name of the ambulance driver who picked up Burroughs’ wife, Joan, after he’d shot her in the head (a drunken accident that would haunt him), to which organs Burroughs’ on-again, off-again lover donated after dying in a car crash. Miles clearly has more information than he knows what to do with, and, perhaps out of loyalty to Burroughs, doesn’t omit anything. But neither does he draw any larger conclusions about Burroughs’ motivations or obsessions.


Perhaps Miles is simply too close to his subject. He met Burroughs in the mid-’60s, and eventually helped organize his papers when Burroughs planned to sell them off for some much-needed cash. The biographer is also responsible for piecing together the abandoned manuscript of Queer, organizing the fully formed novel that is known today. Miles’ fondness for Burroughs is clear from his tone and his sometimes non-critical depiction of Burroughs’ rampant drug use and misogyny. That lack of critical detachment is unfortunate, since it precludes Miles from taking a wider view of a man he knew relatively intimately. While the book never ventures into memoir (though there are a few awkward moments where Miles has to refer to himself in the third person), Call Me Burroughs leaves one wondering what might have been. Had Miles written about his personal interactions with the great writer, planting himself more fully in the story, such a lack of detachment would have fit.

Still, there’s a good story inside Call Me Burroughs, since Burroughs’ life was so wild. From his days in Lower Manhattan with Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to his time living in Morocco during the beginnings of its revolution, Burroughs always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. The glut of fascinating people he knew is jaw-dropping, and Miles succeeds in the portrayals of the writer’s interactions with people like W.H. Auden or Paul McCartney. For die-hard Burroughs fans, Call Me Burroughs will likely fill in small details of its subject’s life that were left in question. For people looking for an introduction to the man’s life and work, reading his Wikipedia page would save a lot of time.