Of the four writers that composed the most visible works of the Beat canon, William S. Burroughs was arguably the grittiest and most bedeviling; Harvard educated, a decade older than Ginsberg and Kerouac, and far better acquainted than either with the perils of hard narcotics, Burroughs played equal parts wicked mentor and cautionary Father Time to his cohorts. Due in part to this and to his obstreperous iconoclasm (his “cut up” novels remain intermittently fascinating examples of deconstructive philology), his later association with punk and grunge is unsurprising (Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain were disciples). What’s mostly neglected, however, is how lyrically plaintive the raunchy, episodic exploits of Naked Lunch and Junkie are; Burroughs’s fetid groans make a lament like “Howl” seem like calmly blue scribbles. Only the icon’s inimitable voice provides a sufficient window to his ineffable sadness; the sonic equivalent of rancid sour mash dripping off a rusty nail, Burroughs’s worldly dialect is secularly incantatory musique concrète.
Yony Leyser’s documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within knows when and how to use its subject’s distinctive voice; some of the best footage here features Burroughs drawling out vacuous but intoxicatingly enunciated musings on love, art, and death while breaking bread with Andy Warhol. These curiously off-the-cuff interviews are interspersed with talking heads from the periphery of the Beats’ circle and their legion of descendants, including Laurie Anderson, Genesis P-Orridge, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Thurston Moore (who provides some music), and John Waters. These rabid admirers frustratingly only alight on Burroughs’s literary significance when speaking in terms of personal influence, some of which is mired in rather petty textual interpretation. (Due to its formalistic intensity and satirical tone, Naked Lunch has never been comfortably read as a gay catharsis.) But as they worm their way through the brown, mealy apple of Burroughs’s career, flecks of despondency are dislodged that piquantly contextualize the pain in the author’s voice.
Elsewhere, Leyser attempts to equate Burroughs’s gun fetishism with the cartoonish recklessness of Hunter S. Thompson; stop-motion animated wire figures of the writer punctuate debauched testimony with seemingly off-the-mark eeriness. Of course, like Thompson, Burroughs managed to convert his runaway, hell-bound train of a lifestyle into immortally witty writing, but he never stooped to the groan-inducing egocentricism of the latter-day Fear and Loathing brand. Burroughs’s most accomplished fiction was like the boiling run-off of his inner-demon-induced sweat; as Leyser’s interviewees repeatedly point out, Burroughs had an acidic fascination with both words and boys that gradually disintegrated him. (He chopped off part of a finger early in life to prove his affection for a male lover; he would later, along with Laurie Anderson, proclaim language a “virus” in a performance-art mushroom cloud of reverse-Chomsky linguistics.)
Burroughs epitomized the 20th-century ideal of the over-educated libertine; Waters bombastically but accurately observes that his shameless male-on-male hunger and simultaneous rejection of the label “queer” forever changed the conversation about sexual orientation. And part of the feral nature of a book like The Wild Boys rests, certainly, in how dissonant Burroughs’s soft-spoken, creakily senescent image seems beside the homoerotic fantasies being ruthlessly indulged. But about a third of the way through A Man Within, Burroughs’s last boyfriend Marcus Ewert recounts an evening where he confessed his love to the postmodern titan, only to be laughingly dismissed. Though egregiously misplaced in the documentary’s narrative (the story, along with 8mm footage of Burroughs and Ewert tending to the former’s koi pond, should have been the film’s centerpiece), this is, to me, an indelibly intimate and revealing middle ground between the sardonic grins of Junkie and the baritone aching of Burroughs’s unforgettable German-language recording of “Falling in Love Again.” Despite his heroin habit and frequent cavorting with male hustlers, all Burroughs really desired was a garden-variety emotional safety net; A Man Within persuasively argues that his most dangerous addiction might have been the refusal of love.