The Wild Boys
William S. Burroughs
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Imagine Naked Lunch, but gayer and possibly even more abstract, then you’ve got The Wild Boys. The plot: organized gangs of homosexual warrior boys roam an apocalyptic wasteland doing battle with various military forces in order to bring about the downfall of western civilization. But it might take you two or three read-throughs to piece that all together because Burroughs is all in with his signature surreal style. The story is told in a series of vignettes–or fragments of vignettes–that leap wildly from one subject and style to the next. Most of the time it’s hard to see how they’re connected, and it’s only once you’re solidly into the book that you might be able to get a sense of what’s going on. But it’s not the plot you should read The Wild Boys for, it’s the aesthetic.
Like a lot of Burroughs other works, The Wild Boys is dripping in color, texture, and bodily fluids. Vivid and trippy sexually charged scenes slide into one another and back again without warning. In one scene a boy dies and then steals the body of another boy by entering him as he cums. In another, several boys masturbate giant penis plants so they can collect the semen to sell at market. Or my personal favorite, the creation of a wild boy, achieved by summoning a spirit and having anal sex with it, creating a physical body for the spirit by ejaculating inside it. I’d like to say these are the more crazy scenes, but no, it’s pretty much all like that. Despite how weird and pronographic the book is, The Wild Boys was surprisingly influential upon its publication. Most notably, David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust was based largely on Burroughs description of the wild boys. Duran Duran’s song “The Wild Boys” was also directly inspired by the novel.
I’ll admit, reading this novel the first time I mostly felt irritated by how incomprehensible it was. In retrospect this was an unfair reaction. Naked Lunch was much easier for me, but that’s because Naked Lunch received much more public attention than The Wild Boys ever did. I knew what to expect with Naked Lunch, I knew what I was getting into and how I might interpret it. Not so with The Wild Boys. But in the years since reading it I’ve come to appreciate it much more. I’ve never read anything else quite like it, and some of the scenes really stick out in my memory, for better or worse.
William S. Burroughs
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For more than three decades, while its writer’s world fame increased, Queer remained unpublished because of its forthright depiction of homosexual longings. Set in the corrupt and spectral Mexico City of the forties, Queer is the story of William Lee, a man afflicted with both acute heroin withdrawal and romantic and sexual yearnings for an indifferent user named Eugene Allerton. The narrative is punctuated by Lee’s outrageous “routines” — brilliant comic monologues that foreshadow Naked Lunch —yet the atmosphere is heavy with foreboding.
In his extraordinary introduction, Burroughs reflects on the shattering events in his life that lay behind this work.
Where to start with Queer? It’s a short novel originally written as a loose sequel (though it can be read alone) to Burrough’s 1953 debut novel Junkie, because publishers thought the latter was too short and uninteresting on its own. But Queer wouldn’t be published until 1985 as American censorship laws likely would have prevented it before then. On the surface it’s a typical, semi-autobiographical story of an author/protagonist lusting after an unobtainable young man, but there’s something raw about this one. You could even say that it’s self-hating, which may be because it was written right after Burroughs accidently murdered his wife. Lee is narcissistic, self-centered, and overtly lecherous, and Burroughs makes no moves to justify or excuse any of it. It’s like he’s saying: ‘Look at this pathetic, disgusting old man (Burroughs was almost 40 when writing this). Isn’t he vile? Who could ever love him? Doesn’t he deserve what he gets?’
So why should you read this? Well, honestly it’s not for everyone. It’s not very graphic or explicit, and it doesn’t give that soul-crushing depression vibe that older gay literature can. Even if Burroughs is intentionally exposing himself to ridicule, Lee’s perspective is still authentic. It’s still a story of raw homosexual desire, and it’s still interesting from that point of view. And I find it a bit fascinating to watch a man hate himself, but I’m a voyeur in that way. It’s short and easy to read, and maybe it’s that plainness that would have gotten it censored. Naked Lunch was written in the same decade and was very explicit, but it was all filtered through the hallucinatory paranoia which made the novel famous. It’s always funny to see what is and isn’t okay that way. Anyway, it’s still an early work by a famous gay author, so anyone interested in gay history and culture should give it a shot.