Junky by William S. Burroughs

Junky, first published in 1952, is one of the first examples of contemporary drug literature. Not only does it have the structural theme of ‘travel’ throughout, in keeping with the Beat Generation feel, Junky is also laced with many concepts that came to categorize the coming counter-culture in psy-lit, and beyond. In doing so it represents an important cultural link between the 1950s and 60s.


I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means of increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.

‘A way of life’ is exactly the nature of the book, wherein it’s discourse is a whirlwind of junk perspectives that rage round the calm moment of ecstatic junk high. As Burroughs begins experimenting with a range of drugs and even deals junk for periods of the book to fund his habit, there is socio-political engagement between users, other degenerates and the law.

Junky avoids the trappings of class-based discourse by illuminating the varied backgrounds of users; instead he builds a picture of the individual struggling against the structure of state. Elements like the health system, state & federal law, are all depicted in a formulaic and cold manner. The law is always closing in; the health professionals always attempting to dictate behaviour. Whilst the underground culture, however, is in a perpetual state of flux; moving and morphing continuously.

One element does remain the same in the underground culture though: “When you stop growing you start dying. An addict never stops growing. – A user is a continual state of shrinking and growing in his daily cycle of shot-need for shot completed.” There remains, throughout, the consciousness of junk.

The junk consciousness of the book is a self-contained concept, which is simultaneously the major driving force in the plot and the central focal point of the book’s perspective. The language used in regard to the connection between character and substance eludes to a mystic science; in fact it appears Timothy Leary took on much of the subjective description in his own psy-lit a decade later. There is constant reference to the cells of the body and organic, sensual understandings as opposed mainstream scientific fact.

I don’t spot junk neighbourhoods by the way they look, but by the feel, somewhat the same process by which a dowser locates hidden water. I am walking along and suddenly the junk in my cells moves and twitches like the dowsers wand: ‘Junk here!’”

Pre-cursor ideas toward those of Leary appear on several levels in the book; best illustrated by the two journeys which take place. Firstly, the physical journal; from New York, through New Orleans, to Mexico before eventually ending with Burroughs’ intention of going to S.America to cure his junk addiction by using the psychedelic, Yage. In it’s own isolated way it predicts the changing cultural focus of psy-lit; as it moved from the Leary’s laboratory at Harvard, to Castaneda’s Mexico, on it’s way to McKenna’s and Pinchbeck’s S.American shamanism.

The second journey, which Burroughs goes on, is best illuminated by Leary’s consciousness model. Opiates are distinguished as the base level in the model, known to begin with as the Void; the second level from this, the ‘Emotional Stupor’, is distinguished as being accessed via alcohol.

Throughout the book there are numerous references to the relationship between these two levels of consciousness. For example, he says at one point that a junky cannot drink as his junk cells cannot absorb it. Towards the end, as Burroughs begins to be objectively against his addiction and goes through a period of being ‘off it’, he turns to alcohol and he moves into the different level of consciousness.

There is also much talk of marijuana and it’s level of the ‘sensory’. “Weed disturbs your sense of time and consequentially your sense of spatial relations.”  Burroughs also eludes to there being different levels of awareness in their behaviour, for example that a ‘tea head’ expects to stay around talking when they pick up, whilst a junky picks up and leaves.

These are explicit examples of multiple psychedelic awareness’s. The ultimate goal for Leary, the opposite to the Void, was the consciousness of Atomic or ‘White Light’; intertextually this is the same representation as Burroughs’ search for Yage and relief from the Void.

This Void state of consciousness, as Leary phrased it, is akin to death in the subjective understandings of both Burroughs and Leary. Burroughs uses phrases like “The physical impact of the face of death; the shitting off of breath; the stopping of blood” when describing his first experience of a junk high. The way in the junk experience itself and it’s ‘consciousness of being’ are both closely related to a concept used widely in psy-lit; namely the ‘unity of opposites’.

No doubt partially stemming from the Beat Generation’s interest in Buddhism, the ‘unity of opposites’ is used as a literary method in Junky to depict the Junky ‘circuit of consciousness’.

Junk sickness is the reverse side of junk kick. The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junktime and junkmetabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions. You cannot escape from junk sickness anymore than you can escape from junk kick after a shot.”

Junky spends the majority of it’s time delving into “junk sickness”; the effects of being without your latest shot, when you’re coming off junk or cannot find any to buy. It dwells, very little, into the ecstatic high, which is frequently only referenced to as the time of relief. He instead caters for the opposite of junk experience; the come-down, the sickness and the experience is taught through opposites. For example:

In junk sickness, any conceivable line of action or inaction seems intolerable.” In regard to the unity theory of opposites Burroughs indicates that the ecstatic junk high is a sense of even the inconceivable being tolerable; hence the void being an absence of sense – merely a state of contented being; undriven. The circuit of junk consciousness is then dictated by the toleration of action and inaction in being, in regard to junk itself.

There are many diverse and interesting characters that appear in the book; from disinterested health officials to a 300-pound Mexican drug tsar called Lupita. They all lend themselves to the narrative in creating the insular feeling world of the junky and masterfully reflect the changing socio-political outlook on narcotics at the time.

Junky is a psychedelic trip entwined, hauntingly, with the objective realist world and the reader is swept though the culture by a very able narrator. I’ll leave you with a quote that I believe best sums up the junk consciousness of Junky: “A junky runs on junk time. When the junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junky time to start. A sick junky has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait.”

All quotes taken from: Junky (1997) Penguin.

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6 Responses

  1. RaiulBaztepo says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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