I have been listening to Junky by William S. Burroughs on Audible for sleep. I have listened to it so many times I have almost memorized the book. I wanted to find a list of characters in Junky, but I can’t find one online. The book Junky has a large number of quirky characters that Burroughs met in the course of his opioid addiction. They are either sellers or users or both, as Burroughs explained, most users sell at one time to make money to support their habit. These characters have names like Whitey and Yellow. But, it’s not clear if the names were made up or if Burroughs used the real names of the people involved. Pat and Bill Gains were the two characters that were explored in greater detail, but most of the characters were just mentioned once or twice. Joan is mentioned very infrequently and then only mentioned as his wife. Most of the book makes it seem like Joan and the two children don’t exist in his life, as he comes and goes from his apartment. A character list would be useful and it may be possible to determine if any of these people were real people and what became of them.
Mary was living with someone named Jack, but it was not Jack Kerouac. Jack had been arrested for a “safe job” and Mary had gone to Florida with a John. In Mary’s only scene she tried to help Burroughs and his friends score for Junk, but she could not get any. She suggested they try Benzos. They legally purchased them and stayed up all night drinking coffee and doing Benzos, but Burroughs did not like the effects. Joan was known for using speed, but Joan is not mentioned at all in this segment. The only time Joan’s speed use is mentioned is when one of the two arresting police officers threatens Burroughs that her speed is worse then his Junk and his children will be taken away and placed in foster care if she does not confess where they imagine he has a large amount of Junk hidden in his home. Mary’s story sounds like a routine and it’s not very realistic, however she is the only one of the Junky Characters who is female. Part of the routine is about her being unable to absorb calcium. The Calcium Routine is one that Burroughs worked out about a town without any calcium. This was an expansion of the Mary Calcium Routine. Mary says her end result will be amputation of her legs and then her arms. It does not sound like a case of Osteoporosis which is just as bad. In the end stages the victim of Osteoporosis may be bedridden with a deformed spine. Their spines that are bent with a hunchback. They can not stand up straight any longer. Burroughs routines were not realistic and were always very extreme. In a routine Burroughs takes a terrible misfortune and turns it a more extreme one for either comic or ironic effects. Osteoporosis is the real tragedy, but the routine goes beyond a more extreme level. The two arresting officers become the characters Hauser and O’Brien in the Book Naked Lunch .
Junky and Queer are my favorite Burroughs books because they are more genuine and have less routines. Queer unfortunately has a lot of routines and the plot makes almost no sense. Junky ends with Burroughs wanting to find Ayahuasca in South America, as a replacement for Junk. Queer explores the search for Ayahuasca with his friend Allerton who’s real name was Marker. The books overlap and Queer is focused Burroughs’ time in Mexico. The routines in Queer were written to interest Marker in letters, but they are always sad and/or violent. I prefer the realism.
What Happened to Joan Vollmer?
This passage is not in the book but this article about Junky has this to say about Joan.
“I’ve been off junk for two months now, though I’m still very cool, as junkies remain cool all their lives. Dolly the Doormat (Joan Vollmer) has taken the kids, whom I haven’t mentioned either, down to Acapulco for a break. Actually she hasn’t. I shot her dead while I was pretending to be William Tell, but the publishers thought that might be a bit of a downer.”
This is false because the publishers insisted that Burroughs write about Joan in the book. They did not want to publish the book with the Joan material as they thought wrongly that it would not sell. Burroughs held firm and never wrote about the death of Joan. This is why Junky was not published right away.
The last thing Burroughs said about Joan in Junky was, “My wife and I are separated”.
Burroughs never wrote much about Joan at all. Most of what is known about her comes from other sources. Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem about her. She liked to read and she took a lot of speed which was legal and became obsessed with cleaning the house and sweeping outside. But she did not take good care of the children. They were left to fend for themselves in Mexico City They found families to give them food. Joan did not like to wear shoes. I read about her in Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles. Burroughs never wrote about Joan because it must have been too painful, but if asked he would say that Joan was “not relevant” to the books he was writing. Joan remained completed separate in the books almost as if Burroughs’ addictions had no effect upon her. In Junky Joan threw out his stash and Burroughs hit her and another time she bailed him out of jail because he was ill from detoxing. But the reader never knows what Joan is suffering. Her despair would be almost unimaginable under these circumstances.
Updated: Barry Miles’ book is not the last word on Burroughs. As detailed as the book was I have found someone who has more information Tommy Cowen. Allen Ginsberg floated a theory that Joan wanted to die and telepathic suggested it. Burroughs had done this party trick before with Joan at least one other time shooting and orange off of her head. This time Joan willed him to miss and hit her. This strikes me as victim blaming. We can’t know for sure how Joan felt, but it is an interesting theory. I have also read accounts of Joan in which people felt her health was in decline from drug and alcohol intake. Losing her health, polio and her wandering husband may have made her wish to die. A very tragic story especially for their son, Billy who later drank himself to death because he was unable to process and accept that his father had murdered his mother. He always blamed Burroughs.
I have imagined the scene of Joan’s death in my mind many times. The movie Naked Lunch shows a completely unrealistic portrayal of Joan’s death. In Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg (Burroughs was actually a consultant), an indifferent Joan is killed after cheating with Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was a ladies man. Kerouac had a number of ladies and wives in his life at all times I don’t think he would have been interested in having affair with Joan or she with him.
The book Naked Lunch didn’t contain anything about Joan. The books Junky and Queer have almost nothing about Joan. They have not yet made a definitive movie to show a realistic picture of how the shooting actually happened. Courtney Love played Joan in the movie Beat, but she was completely unlike Joan in the movie.