Book Reviews
Apr 23, 2007, 04:18

LAST WORDS: THE FINAL JOURNALS OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS by William S. Burroughs, James Grauerholz, Ed.; Grove Press, 2000 

In WSB's own words, Dead Fingers Talk. Three years past his untimely—as it would be at any time, at any age—demise, Old Bull Lee has filed one last report from the bunker in the form of a series of journals written in the final nine months of his life. For Burroughs aficionados, it's the best Happy No Year present ever, a final glimpse into the one-of-a-kind mind that revolutionized American letters during the last half of the Zero Century.

As is clear from the outset, an uncharacteristically sentimental (for Burroughs) lament for a dead, favorite cat, Last Words was intended to be exactly that. The familiar Burroughs, combative, confrontational, hard as nails, the product of a fast, difficult life spent confronting every conceivable demon, has retreated to the shadows; in his place, a calmer, more reflective, more disjointed man—still ready to rage against hypocrisy and stupidity, still more than happy to offend, but possessed of a newfound compassion both for the world at large and for himself. Old-school aficionados who gasped in horror with the publication of The Cat Inside during the early ‘90s, with its soft-focus idealizations of feline companions and utter dearth of the trademark WSB violence and smut, will scarcely be placated by the kinder, gentler Burroughs plying his trade here. But if they're willing to look hard enough, they'll discover that there's no contradiction between the hallucinatory, twisted texts of old and the stripped-down, earthbound prose of the master's latter days. Burroughs has simply come full circle. After a lifetime of kicking against the pricks, of flaunting convention and authority, of censure and conflict, Burroughs—like most octogenarians—finally reached the point where the good fight, for him, was barely worth fighting anymore; having lived long enough to see his signature style bowdlerized, copped, and co-opted by legions of pale imitators and to see his once scandalous art vaunted in the halls of establishment museums and libraries, the war was over, and he knew he'd lost as much as he'd won.

Last Words isn't a narrative in any sense—at times it's barely coherent, despite the best efforts of Burroughs' stalwart friend and literary executor James Grauerholz—but nonetheless WSB's creaky, forever-ancient voice comes through loud and clear. De-powered Burroughs is nonetheless Burroughs, and that means a few heads and shoulders above the competition. It's a voice that cuts through bullshit like a knife, castigating William Bennett and Reagan and Bush; a voice that summons forth the dimly visible, the hallucinatory, and the revelatory. In explaining his vaunted cut-up writing technique once, Burroughs explained that “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out,” his opaque way of attributing prescience to his disjointed texts—a belief later substantiated in fact. Here, Burroughs has made a cut-up of his own life, of his work, of his world, and despite having been dead for three long years, has presented it to the lost, hapless inhabitants of spaceship earth as a blueprint for their new same-as-the-old millennium. The road ahead, as the Burroughs map indicates, is winding, rocky, and tortuous; the weather calls for continued insanity, depravity, violence, and senselessness. Per the usual in Interzone, the future's uncertain and the end is always near. Miss you, WSB.

-David Livingstone

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