The Western Lands by William Burroughs - review by Mark Ford

Mark Ford

Boxcar Willie

The Western Lands


Picador 272pp £10.95 order from our bookshop

The old writer William Seward Hall lives in a boxcar by the river. Thirty years ago he wrote a book called The Boy Who Whittled Animals out of Wood, about a crippled boy who carved animals, and finally animated them by means of masturbatory rites, but since then nothing. Now he sits down to write his way out of death.

Death in William Burroughs is nearly always some sort of ultimate orgasm; in his fiction an endless supply of crazed ephebes are described hanging themselves in shuddering frenzies, dousing each other in gasoline, diving naked and in flames out of windows three thousand feet high, spurting ecstatically in mid-air. New addictions follow hard on the heels of old:

‘A clutch of centipede freaks, naked, on top of each others’ faces, sit with idiot grins, covered with erogenous perforations to the bone, slowly scratching irridescent sores that burst under caressing fingers, yielding gushes of foul-smelling ichor streaked with blood as the addicts twist in galvanic spasms.’

In The Western Lands Burroughs’ frantics are hooked on the venom of cobras, sea-snakes, kraits, tiger-snakes, the blue-ringed octopus, rattlesnakes, water-moccasins, the Gaboon Viper. ‘Bufotenine, extracted from a poisonous toad, brings one out in a strawberry rash, so becoming with pink lace.’ Green mambas are administered anally; others go about with scorpions and centipedes crawling all over them – ‘“Oh my dear, I’m terribly down. I need a lift from my Pede!” and right there in Ma Maison he pulls down his pants and applies a footlong centipede to his erect member. The diners were electrified.’

Ferocious centipedes have taken over most of America, but they are only one element in Burroughs’ rich vision of despair and apocalypse as resumed in his new book. (The Western Lands is the final instalment of the trilogy begun in Cities of the Red Night [1981] and continued in The Place of Dead Roads [1983].) In Egyptian mythology, on which the novel draws heavily, the Western Lands are the realms where those granted immortality by the gods are received. The Egyptians thought mummification, the preservation as far as possible of the departed’s remains, was the safest method to achieve this. Burroughs of course has a more pitiless existential solution; ‘If you fear death all the time, for what time you have left you are immortal.’

Burroughs celebrates all those pilgrims who see through the empty charade of our magicless universe and have the courage to addict themselves to fear and death. The questers in The Western Lands are all wonderfully well-trained killers who, importantly, enjoy killing for its own sake. Obscure types of weapons such as the Maquahuitl, the poisoned flail, and the blow-dart, are dwelt on in gloating detail, and hideous new types of death devised. The Breathers, through a mixture of centipede excrement, vulture vomit, bat dung, rotten land crabs, the accumulated body fluids of an imperfectly embalmed mummy, nurture a breath so foul that at point-blank range it can kill you. In the town of Last Chance where duels to the death are the only pastime, the varieties of combat are immense – a dogfight with World War I biplanes, a medieval joust, a motorcycle duel with bicycle chains… Or there is the deadly 50–50, one gun loaded, one with blanks, the choice by lot. Or two pills, one milk-sugar, the other cyanide. Both contestants swallow and wait.

Like nearly all Burroughs’ novels The Western Lands has no linear plot, but cuts from vignette to vignette, each pan fitting together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to create the ‘Big Picture’. Its most prominent heroes are Joe the Dead (at work on mutants and interspecies transplants), Hassan I Sabah (an early Iranian revolutionary from whom we derive the word assassin), trigger-happy frontiersman Kim Carsons, a flail-wielding Egyptian scribe called Neferti, and of course the gun-toting old psychopath William Seward Hall himself. Old favourites such as AJ and Doctor Benway also briefly reappear, as if for a curtain-call.

There is in The Western Lands a very definite sense of completion, a strong yearning for conclusion. lnterspliced with the dense picaresque nightmare are diary sections in which Burroughs details his dreams, meetings with his friends, and the appalling dreariness of the hotel he happens to be staying at in Gibraltar. Most of Burroughs’ narratives end up in some sort of colossal explosion, but this one seems curiously to implode, as if to discard its fiercely activated fictions for a quieter more helpless truth. It seems a less arrogant, less self-sufficient book than any he has written previously, continually alluding to the classics of English Literature – Macbeth, The Ancient Mariner, Pope, Keats, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Antony and Cleopatra. Towards the end especially, the manic intensity that characterises so much of his prose seems to give way to a more rambling serenity, and there are moments that seem unambiguously personal. ‘The old writer couldn’t write any more because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words…’, begins the book’s final section. One hopes this isn’t so; but the novel’s ending, with its quote from his fellow St Louis townsman T S Eliot, is surely about as autumnal as Burroughs can ever get:

‘In Tangier the Parade Bar is closed. Shadows are falling on the Mountain.
“Hurry up, please. It’s time.”’

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