William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

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William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

A man within what, exactly? If anything, William Seward Burroughs was defined by the structures he stood apart from: the upper-class society of his birth; the cookie-cutter '50s, during which he first started dabbling in drugs and writing; the "straight" world (in both senses of the word). Even by the standards of the jive-talking hustlers and jazz-loving hipsters---code name: the Beats---with whom he'd alter the landscape of American letters, this gaunt, gravel-voiced junkie took rebellion to a new level. Outspoken about his sexuality long before queer chic, Burroughs didn't toe a gay-lib party line. Punks considered him their patron saint, yet he never claimed affinity for them either. He ran in many circles, and pledged allegiance to none of them.

Yony Leyser's pop doc on "the pope of dope" portrays Burroughs as, per a biographer's label, the ultimate "literary outlaw"---but the emphasis is on the second word. There are precious few examples of the writing that made him an icon, and despite testimonies from former boyfriends and fellow mavericks, the Burroughs we see here is mostly a gun nut who poses for photos with everyone from Jean Genet to Kurt Cobain. Reducing an influential genius to a bohemian Zelig with a firearm fetish misses the forest for the flaming metal trees; in Leyser's biographical interzone, the superficial trumps the truly subversive.

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By: David Fear


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