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Book review: Call Me Burroughs by Barry Miles

A biographer renders the writer’s life, from his well-to-do upbringing to his wild days overseas and beyond, without purple prose.

Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

By Barry Miles. Twelve, $35.

Over the course of his 600-plus pages on the life of the justifiably revered, and often batshit-crazy, literary titan William Burroughs, Barry Miles brings a judicious reserve to recording one of the most chaotic lives in the recent history of the arts. Miles begins with a well-researched and thorough examination of Burroughs’s relatively upscale beginnings as a member of St. Louis high society, but quickly pivots to the author’s outrageous adventures in South America, Europe and Tangier, Morocco. His drug- and sex-fueled mind odysseys there, which were abetted by colleagues like Allen Ginsberg and Paul Bowles—which would in time cohere into the fractious narrative of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—are rendered with a kind of matter-of-factness that flatters author and subject.

Miles, perhaps recognizing that any embellishment upon either the extraordinary prose of Burroughs or the astounding facts of the writer’s existence, laudably consigns himself to the job of mere reportage, favoring simple language and a fast-moving narrative largely devoid of the biographer’s armchair analysis. This stylistic modesty is ultimately Call Me Burroughs’s greatest strength—a kind of economic bulwark against the flood of ideas that characterize its subject’s tireless lust for expression.