One Man’s Junk Is Another Man’s Treasure

In William S. Burrough’s “Junky”, a newly graduated English major scraps his middle class life in favor of the opiate addict lifestyle. Published in 1952, this semi-autobiography shows insight into the drug culture and underworld at the time. The main character, William Lee (nicknamed “Bill”), comes into possession of some morphine, and wondering about the […]

In William S. Burrough’s “Junky”, a newly graduated English major scraps his middle class life in favor of the opiate addict lifestyle. Published in 1952, this semi-autobiography shows insight into the drug culture and underworld at the time. The main character, William Lee (nicknamed “Bill”), comes into possession of some morphine, and wondering about the allure of the substance to his buyers, decides to try his first “shot”. William Lee quickly learns that opium consumes your life, giving junkies their own sense of time and distorted priorities.

After becoming a self-proclaimed “junkie,” William Lee’s life is ever changing, quickly consumed by opiates. William Lee’s life is an ode to his mantra:

“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.” (Burroughs 3)

The book shows a contrast of users stemming from all sociopolitical roots. William Lee (a portrayal of Burroughs) is a well-educated man with a wife and 150 dollars a month delivered to him from a trust fund. By contrast, William Lee begins consorting with people such as Jack, a career criminal and opiate addict, and his friends, Roy and Herman, career criminals down on their luck waiting for a “setup man” to tell them exactly what to do. Addiction is non-discriminatory.

Perhaps most fascinating is Burroughs accounts of the junkies he encounters. At the introduction of each new character in the book, Burroughs paints a vivid picture of the person, highlighting not only the sallow skin and decay of the junkie, but also the life behind the addiction. Take his description of Roy, for instance:

“The man sat up straighter and swung his legs off the couch. His jaw fell slackly, giving his face a vacant look. The skin of his face was smooth and brown. The cheekbones were high and he looked Oriental. His ears stuck out at right angles from his asymmetrical skull. The eyes were brown and they had a peculiar brilliance, as though points of light were shining behind them. The light in the room glinted on the points of light in his eyes like an opal.” (7)

Throughout his account, Burroughs gives “junk” a consciousness of its own. A ‘sick’ junkie will find himself immobilized, without a sense of time or appetite. Upon receiving a shot, hunger, content, and sleep befall the junkie. William Lee never refers to getting “high,” but rather calls his shots a “time of relief.” In Burroughs’ descriptions of characters, sickness is noted in the skin, with a pale, sallow quality, as opposed to the “smooth and brown” skin of Roy, the buyer of his morphine.

To Burroughs, an addict is always growing. Throughout times of sickness and finding the next shot, the body undergoes shock and then relief.

“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.” (22)

To stop growing is to begin dying, thus in Burroughs’ eyes, an addict has the potential for a long life. Burroughs himself lived from 1914 to 1997 (Miles 6). However just as a junkie is always changing, the underworld itself is always changing: “The man,” or the dope-dealer is dependent on which junkie has the dope connection at the time. William Lee began dealing once he came to New York City to fund his opiate addiction. Getting his dope from an Italian connection who was constantly shorting him product, William Lee sells his dope to a variety of characters, one of whom a waiter by the name of Marvin.

Marvin is described as a dirty person, the type of person William Lee would never be able to sell to in public without suspicion. After Marvin cops (buys) some product in his own apartment, he goes “on the nod” right after injection. An update from his friend Roy later in the series explains Marvin died from an overdose, disproving the junkie immortality.

Dealing drugs brings immense stress to Lee: His Italian connect keeps shorting him, giving drugs on credit nibbles away at the profits, and there is the constantly looming worry that the police may be onto him. The law, as William Lee calls it, is aware that someone is selling 14-16% purity morphine caps to a plethora of addicts. That person is William Lee himself and although he sells the highest grade morphine in the city, his own addiction ensures he never saves much money. A tip off from a staff member of the hotel he was staying in alerted him that his clients made it obvious something illegitimate was going on. William Lee was lucky to have been tipped off rather than arrested, and counted his blessings before going straight to New Orleans to reinvent his life as a junkie.

Burroughs mentions “tea smokers” regularly as a focal point for comparing a lifestyle drug to life-enhancing drugs. There are comparisons of both, marijuana described as ‘disturbing your sense of time and consequentially your sense of spatial relations’. A morphine high is described as an ‘all around content.’ Burroughs finds “tea heads” far too concentrated on the social aspect of drugs, explaining how when a weed smoker picks up he will expect to hang around and talk, whilst a junkie will pick up and leave (18). As weed is not physically addicting, a weed smoker will smoke to enhance his daily activities. A junkie’s day to day life involves getting money for the drug, the time of sickness, and the time of relief.

Burroughs explains how the addiction begins, with one needing hundreds of shots before they become actually physically addicted. As a habit takes hold, other interests lose importance, and obtaining the next shot becomes the point of existence.

On top of his daily life consisting of stealing and dealing in order to support his habit, his own sense of time is consumed by “junk.” William Lee describes his first high as “The physical impact of the face of death; the shitting off of breath; the stopping of blood.” (7) When high, it is like time stops and a sense of content takes over, until William Lee begins “fiending” for his next shot. William Lee describes this phenomenon as “junk time.” When a junkie is sick, time stops. William Lee notes his sense of external time returning a couple days after one of his attempts at stopping junk use.

“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.” (87) To me, this embodies the essence of a junkie. Basically, your life as a junkie is consumed by your habit, thus not being able to shoot up freezes any incentive one would have to continue existence. This quote embodies the true soul of a junkie, one with a habit who cannot see past that habit until said habit is kicked.

Nearing the end of the book, William Lee finds himself in Mexico to escape charges back in New Orleans. In Mexico, “junk” is even more expensive than in the States, due to a 300-pound dealer named Lupita monopolizing the market and paying off the police to exonerate her from arrest. Lupita’s heroin is twice as expensive in the states, and eventually William Lee finds a doctor who will prescribe him enough morphine to last him a month for a tenth of the cost back home. With an abundance of high grade morphine, Burroughs is overwhelmed and decides to kick his habit by trying peyote, a psychedelic used in Mexico for self-realization and discovery purposes, derived from the San Pedro cactus.

After trying out peyote, Burroughs has a new outlook on junkies: He notes that the young junkies seem full of life and energy, but once they have shot up junk, they slump over in their chair.

“The young hipsters seem Jacking in energy and spontaneous enjoyment of life. The mention of pot or junk will galvanize them like a shot of coke. They jump around and say, “Too much! Man, let’s pick up! Let’s get loaded.” But after a shot, they slump into a chair like a resigned baby waiting for life to bring the bottle again.” (169)

Again, there is mention of “junkie time,” however in this Burroughs description; there is condescension towards the young junkies (referred to as hipsters). Burroughs compares the after effects of a shot on a young junkie as a “resigned baby waiting for life to bring the bottle again”, whereas earlier in the book he described his morphine high as a “warm bath” as he lay on his bed.

As the book concludes, William Lee begins to search for a higher level of consciousness in Yage, a plant that contains the powerful psychedelic DMT (Morgan 132). Although psychedelics are non-addictive, unlike opiates, the main character always seems to dabble in narcotics. Junky shows the life of an addict from the rare time of contentment to the all too common “sickness” and struggle that consumes most of a junkie’s life. Throughout the book it is obvious that Burroughs is of above average intelligence, a cynical character consumed by his fascination in the underworld.

Throughout the book there are a range of diverse characters, a range of crimes, and a great deal of avoiding the police, all centered on that next shot. Whereas people struggle with day to day life and their biological clocks, the junkie is centered around a time of relief, living in an underground world and most certainly having a time zone of their own. Upon finishing the book, one wonders what became of William Lee, and if he found comfort in a one track mind. In an ever changing world, one thing is for sure: Junky is an unforgettable look into the mind of an addict and for that it remains one thing: Timeless.

Miles Burleson-Lesser


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