by William S. Burroughs

That Jack Black’s You Can’t Win influenced Junky in a significant way, it becomes an interesting exercise to read both for comparison’s sake. You catch hints of similarity between the two, although Burroughs’ book doesn’t necessarily compare favourably to Black’s. Both concern an individual navigating the American underworld, with stronger storytelling and better flow in You Can’t Win. And both make a case for the significant changes that need to be made to a punitive justice system in order to more effectively address the problems at hand, though Black is much more convincing in his argument.

But, no matter what criticism Junky garners from me, I remind readers that it’s the debut of the author, the author who also wrote one of my favourites, and, as such, likely important to read if only to understand Burroughs’ progression and evolution as an author. Junky follows the author’s stand-in, Bill Lee, as he struggles with his “junk” addiction––encompassing heroin, morphine, and other opioid derivatives. He engages in criminal activities to fuel his habit, such as pushing (selling) and rolling lushes (robbing passed-out drunks) on the subway, tries to kick the habit multiple times, and moves around to evade the law. This takes him from New York to New Orleans first, but later drives him out of the country and into Mexico when anti-drug hysteria ramps up back home.

Junky feels unfinished to me, for a few reasons, not the least of which being the choppy flow we get from the way we move between a straightforward narrative about Lee feeding his habit and evading the law to passages of Burroughs basically lecturing us on the effects of the drugs or the perils of the growing police state in the U.S. I think the repetition has something to do with this unfinished feeling as well, and I do recall this in Naked Lunch, too, which makes me think this could be a general Burroughs problem, with long passages repeating themselves later on in the story––either verbatim or at least in content. (I say this having read only two of his many books, of course, so it’s possible I stumbled across the two where this was an issue.) With Junky, Burroughs also didn’t seem to have yet cultivated the gift of expression that I prized from Naked Lunch. I mean, we get snippets of things like the insect comparisons and clear, menacing imagery, but, for the most part, it’s more a dry, dreary account of things. Maybe this was purposeful to some extent, with the author trying to capture the junky’s flat, unemotional state when he’s deep within the clutches of his drug, but, no matter the explanation, it sure didn’t make things exciting.

So, Junky’s okay, but it feels more like a study than a finished novel, an author’s preparation for better things to come.