Category Archives: Essay

Drugs and Addiction in Three Post-War American Novels. Part I: William S. Burroughs’ Junky.

By Sashank S. Das

This is the first in a three part essay on Drugs and Addiction in three post-World War II American Novels: William S. Burroughs’ Junky (1953), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream(1979). Read on.

Junky cover-1 

Cover of Junky for the 50th Anniversary Edition, © with the Artists.

Critical evaluation of the post-war American novel is seemingly rendered a thankless task by both generic peculiarities and the uneven, even chaotic history of the United States after the Second World War. However, there may be found useful vantage points for such evaluation. Addiction and drugs are such a theme, for much post-war fiction dramatizes the restructuring of the self under, as it were, the influence of drugs. This describes a continuum across a complex historical era.

That this is peculiarly connected to the experience of the American city is established by the vast networks of interactions between subjects in this location, interactions based on and built around drugs, their use, commerce and effects upon the subject. After the Second World War, drug use (that of heroin in particular) gain unprecedented dimensions as a social and political issue in America, leading to what is popularly referred today as the “war on drugs.” Moreover, this was concentrated in the larger, “industrial cities and states” (Courtwright 149). Therefore, this burgeoning economy of drugs brings within the purview of analysis a vast urban map in which subterranean aspects of the American city are highlighted and surveyed.

However, texts like William S. Burroughs’ Junky (1953), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (1979) are not to be studied simply as sociological documents that present the mechanics of “drug culture” for an external observer. Addiction, as represented in these texts, is a set of practices that evoke certain responses from the subject in his urban environment; it comes to approximate a mode of subjectivity. To see it simply as a chemical-biological phenomenon is to overlook the range of experiences that define and situate the addict in society. Such a simplistic perception not only reduces addiction to an impersonal phenomenon, but also misses what touches it off, the social matrix within which addiction occurs and acquires its cultural associations.

Jacques Derrida provides such a conceptual expansion of drugs and addiction in his interview, “The Rhetoric of Drugs” (1989). He begins by stating that drugs are not to be classed simply as chemical substances that are harmful to the human body. Rather, drugs require “an instituted and an institutional definition: a history is required, and a culture, conventions, evaluations, norms, an entire network of intertwined discourses, a rhetoric, whether explicit or elliptical” (229). There is no essential, “natural” approach to drugs, and so Derrida advocates a careful awareness of their movement in the realm of cultural meaning.

He goes on to state that “drugs in general are not condemned for the pleasure they bring, but rather because this aphrodisiac is not the right one: it leads to suffering and to the disintegration of the self, in short, it desocializes” (250). Drug use here is enacted in and eventually envelopes the human body, but through the selfsame process, strips the body of human characteristics. An honest, nuanced literary representation of addiction cannot but confront this paradox.

Derrida’s analysis problematizes the very notion of the human, for it acknowledges that drug addiction has an ideology, which is shaped in interaction with its experience, and one cannot be sealed off from the other. The novels under discussion here attempt to negotiate these tensions embedded in the phenomenon of addiction, as they simultaneously address the social and juridical strictures prohibiting drug use, and the physiological and psychological constitution of the addict. They attempt to avoid both extremes: that of moral condemnation and prescription, and that of myopic celebration for the sake of pure shock value.

The addict, as pictured in these novels, also perceives the looming anxiety in American society in the period following the Second World War. This was the same anxiety in the immediate post-war period that spawned the Beat Generation, but had to vie with an imposed, insular official narrative: “the mass media and the White House promulgated the idea that America was a near-perfect society – the apogee of historical progress – threatened by evil communism and all its agents” (Raskin, 4).

In contrast, Burroughs, Thompson and Selby uncover a different America, one of marginal experiences and suffering, which counter this revivified American myth. The forms of their contestation are varied and respond to different segments of this myth, and this study will now attempt to comprehensively mark out these within the fictional frameworks of their novels.


Junky is William S. Burroughs’ first, loosely autobiographical novel, and chronicles his first forays into drug culture. It is not considered the equal of his more mature writing, but is important for unflinchingly setting the themes of drugs and addiction. These would preoccupy later novels like Naked Lunch (196) and much of the literature of the Beats.

However, the specificities of this depiction contradict many fundamental elements of that literature. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the other Beat writers attempted to mark out a community among themselves, bound together by its conception of the writer and the self; Burroughs does not see the same potential in addiction. Indeed, what is most remarkable throughout the narrative of Junky is its bloodless treatment of its subject matter. It consistently denies the hallmarks of Beat writing, its “aesthetics of self-expression,” its “romance of the marginal” and its “visionary narrative motivation” (Harris 54).

In defining junk as a “way of life” (Junky Prologue xli), Burroughs seemingly expands the very scope of addiction; indeed, its exactitude of detail is such that Junky can be read as an anthropological survey of this emergent drug culture. However, William Lee, Burroughs’ proxy in the novel, displays little confidence in both identifying himself and in relating his experiences of addiction. He states, in the introduction to the original manuscript, that junk or heroin is “transitional between living and dead matter, between animal and vegetable life,” and “in some way alive” (Introduction 139). As junk gains this animate quality and takes over the addict, the latter can no longer be perceived through the lens of normative humanism.

This dehumanization is enacted in the body of the addict, which is frequently described by Burroughs in non-human or fragmentary terms: “a shapeless, protoplasmic mass” (11), “a withered adolescent” (24), “insect-like” (48), “liverish-looking” (63), “a pile of bones” (77). The melding of biological junky and chemical junk is total: “They all looked like junk” (25). Junk operates internally, within the addict’s body: the addict is reduced to the level of cellular operations, a complex of junk-dependent cells and junk-free cells. So, drug use shrinks any native, inborn ideal of humanism attached to the human subject.

To Burroughs/Lee, the economy of junk is defined by a constant wanting, a search for purpose in the physical gratification of drugs. Yet, this gratification is problematic: how can a practice undeniably harmful to the human subject be spoken and written of as anything else? A key point is that the immediate effect of drug use is never depicted in detail by Burroughs: he pointedly states that “(w)hen you are hooked, the effects of a shot are not dramatic” (41) The high itself is styled as oddly neutral, and conveys a sense of neither pleasure nor pain.

The full force of his description is instead concentrated on the tortuous experience of “junk sickness,” the withdrawal symptoms that follow when one ceases to use drugs:

A junkie runs on junk time. When his junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junk time to start. A sick junkie has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait (72).

The point here is that drug use is structured through desire, albeit one that is parasitical, for it is twinned with suffering. This desire is insatiable, and rejecting it of one’s own volition only induces the physical torment of junk sickness. The need to hold this sickness at bay determines every action of the addict, which is plotted along the progression of “junk time.” The self, too, in being oriented by this desire, is displaced and atomized.  Junk may be a “way of life,” but it is not a means of achieving community in American society.

This is a national condition: Burroughs’ narrative travels from New York to New Orleans to the Rio Grande valley in Texas to Mexico City. This peripatetic graph of the junky lifestyle cannot be said to decisively establish the same lifestyle in any specific locale, or even the larger, more accommodating cultural space of the American city. It is reminiscent of the travel narratives of the beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). However, these narratives connect and define a community over America, whereas Burroughs’ junkies are truly flotsam, their encounters with other junkies, pushers and police no more than points on the quest for junk.

Burroughs’ addicts, physically mutilated and isolated, inhabit a city which is segregated in its own way. Their marginality in American society is also urban marginality, whether in New York, New Orleans, or even Mexico City. The state of addiction is mapped onto the American city, so that junk sickness and urban alienation become similar conditions. Burroughs illustrates this overlap in a striking passage:

Almost worse than the sickness is the depression that goes with it. One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores. Weeds were growing up through cracks and holes in the pavement. There was no one in sight (23).

This dystopian vision identifies the withered body of the addict with a bleak cityscape: the “centipedes’ and “scorpions” call to mind Burroughs’ withdrawal symptoms: “It seemed like ants were crawling around under the skin” (81). One also recalls that addicts in the novel generally conduct their transactions in “bars and cafeterias and drugstores.”

On his travels, Burroughs claims to be able to instantly identify the haunts of junkies. These are not usually marked as locales in themselves, but instead form a network along which junkies maintain their addiction. In New York, “103 and Broadway” mark “junk territory,” where the human presence is overwhelmed by “the feel of junk,” which “haunts the cafeteria, roams up and down the block, sometimes half-crossing Broadway to sit on one of the park benches” (24-5). Similarly, the subway is crucial for junkies and other subjects on the fringes of society. Here, they rob drunks to pay for their fixes, which are obtained from far-flung parts of the city to avoid the dragnet of narcotics agents.

Even for the addict, the city is a zone of unexpected intersections and unprecedented social diffusion. Burroughs’ pushers and users are both drawn from across different social strata, and bring about shifts in the retail drug economy. Prior to the Second World War, many drug pushers were Jews, and confined themselves to an upper-class clientele (Courtwright 107-8). This older generation is only encountered in William Lee’s tenure in the Lexington Hospital (Junky 53-5). Now, the trade has been commandeered by the Italian mafia (34). The user profile is also changing: late in the narrative, it is stated that “Lexington is full of young kids now. (125).

Burroughs eventually turns away from this situation as it becomes a “state of complete chaos,” bordering on “paranoid obsession, like anti-Semitism under the Nazis” (120), and escapes to Mexico. Like the Beat writers, his primary critique remains that of the system of surveillance and control in post-war America. However, desire and sensation are just as strong in their influence over the self. This desire cannot be disavowed or repressed: “Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh” (128). The quest to satiate it must be taken elsewhere, away from America, away from heroin.

© Sashank S. Das

The second and third part of the essay will be published in the coming weeks.