If William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, were alive today, he'd be 100 years old. I don't know why this factoid fascinates me so much. Maybe it's because when he died in 1997 at age 83, he looked 100.
His legendary drug habit, which was both his subject and his inspiration, somehow left him remarkably well-preserved. Not only did he survive decades of reckless opiate addiction, he enjoyed a second act as a spoken-word performer and recording artist, and then a lucrative third act as a visual artist. He was much sought-after for parties and speaking engagements, and he appeared in a number of films.
He had a memorable cameo in Twisters with Crispin Glover, and this exchange between the two served as my answering-machine message for a few years:
Glover: Is Jim here?
Burroughs: Jim got kicked in the head by a horse last year. Went around killing horses for a while and then he ate the insides of a clock and he died.
Apparently, Burroughs provided the line, but he didn't write it: It originally appears in Playboy of the Western World by the Irish playwright John Millington Synge.
There are a million anecdotes likes this in Call Me Burroughs, an extensive new biography by Barry Miles, who knew Burroughs personally, edited his letters and archived his papers. One of the more interesting facts to emerge from the biography, at least for me, is the existence of a book about cats that Burroughs wrote late in life.
That's right, the man who wrote a novel so depraved that it was immediately banned and is as harrowing today as it was when it was published in 1959 wrote a book about his feline friends.
If you're waiting for a punch line, there isn't one.
The Cat Inside is a collection of short reflections and ruminations about cats. I'm not sure what's stranger—that Bill Burroughs, the godfather of punk, lifetime dope addict and firearms fetishist, wrote about his cats or that, in it, you'll find lines like this:
"... [A] scarlet orange and green cat with reptile skin, a long sinewy neck and poison fangs—the venom is related to the blue-ringed octopus: two steps you fall on your face, an hour later you're dead..."
That's classic Burroughs at his hardboiled finest. But cats? Seriously?
Burroughs himself was sort of catlike: slender, aloof, inscrutable and not particularly affectionate. He wasn't known as "el hombre invisible" for nothing.
Because of his addiction, Burroughs spent most of his life in cities—London, Mexico City, New Orleans, New York, Paris and Tangier. He was always on the move from apartment to apartment, hotel to hotel. He didn't stay anywhere long enough to look after a pet and often lacked the wherewithal to take care of himself.
That all changed when he leased a home outside of Lawrence, Kan., which he referred to as "the Stone House." Once he put down roots, the cats sought him out.
"I don't remember exactly when Ruski first came into the house. I remember sitting in a chair by the fireplace with the front door open and he saw me from fifty feet away and ran up, giving the special little squeaks I never heard from another cat, and jumped into my lap, nuzzling and purring and putting his little paws up to my face, telling me he wanted to be my cat."
We're a long way from suppurating sores, giant centipedes and talking assholes that make Naked Lunch so hauntingly strange. Burroughs seems to realize it, too:
"Reading over these notes, which were simply a journal of my year at the Stone House, I am absolutely appalled. So often, looking back over my past life, I exclaim, 'My God, who is this?' Seen from here I appear as a most unsightly cartoon of someone who was awful enough to begin with..."
Awful indeed, but that's what makes these pieces so arresting: They offer a view of the author at his most unguarded. The Cat Inside is a slender volume. Calling it a book is a bit generous. The pieces are centered on the page like poems and, like a poetry collection, can be enjoyed in one sitting.
Read this way, a portrait emerges of a man at the end of his life who can sense death approaching. Instead of going out with a needle in his arm or a bullet in his brain, remarkable considering his fixations, Burroughs died like so many others: at home alone with his cats.