Published: November 2009
Junky (also titled with the alternative spelling, Junkie) is a semi-autobiographical novel by William S. Burroughs. First published in 1953, it was Burroughs' first published novel and has come to be considered a seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s. Burroughs' working title for the text was Junk.
In 2003, to mark the work's 50th anniversary, Penguin reissued the book as Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk." It included a new introduction by Oliver Harris, the British literary scholar, who integrated new material never before published; Harris had found edits of deleted material in the literary archives of Allen Ginsberg.
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.
It is worth mentioning that Burroughs had briefly attended Harvard University in the late 1930s as a graduate student of anthropology. (He had already gotten an undergraduate degree from Harvard.) There is a definite ethnographic orientation to the story, especially in the beginning. One might argue that Burroughs was writing as a ‘scientist’ trying to accurately account for the language and lives of people most would consider degenerate. Dispelling stereotypes - even before the word was used to describe oversimplified opinions or beliefs - is one goal of the work. Yet Burroughs's narrator is free from any restriction to remain 'objective'. Insight and opinion, unsupported beyond the narrator's experience, is considered among the most memorable and interesting aspects of the text.
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.