In 1953, at the height of American conformism and anti-communist hysteria, William S. Burroughs published Junky, an irresistible strung-out ode to the joys and perversities of drug addiction. The pulp novel’s original title: Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, by the pseudonym William Lee, was about drug abusers, a class of American society nearly as reviled as communists. Junky’s core perversity was the illumination of the main reason the junkie does heroin, despite its horrors and despair, is because it’s better than the alternative: not doing heroin.
The text is memorable for its content and style. The distant, dry, laconic tone of the narrator is balanced by the openness and honesty of the story. Burroughs shows courage in offering details about his narrator’s behavior. He speaks from the vantage point of an eyewitness, reporting back to ‘straights’ the feelings, thoughts, actions and characters he meets in the criminal fringe of New York, at the Lexington Federal Narcotics Hospital/Prison in Kentucky, and in New Orleans and Mexico City.
The story takes on a more personal tone when the narrator leaves New York. In subsequent sections the substantive facts are replaced by a more intimate, desperate search for meaning and escape from criminal sanction and permanent addiction. Throughout, there are flashes of Burroughs’s fierce originality, acutely graphic description, and agonizingly candid confessions: traits that would mark his literature for the next forty years.