‘The whole human position is no longer tenable,’ announces a character early in William S Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night. The story that Burroughs’s biographer Ted Morgan – whose previous subjects include Winston S Churchill, W Somerset Maugham and Franklin D Roosevelt – tells in Literary Outlaw is that of someone who has spent an entire literary life attempting to reconcile a belief that human existence is unendurable with the knowledge that it is also inescapable, and whose literary life itself derives from the event which confirmed him in that belief.
On the afternoon of September 6, 1951, William Seward Burroughs – alienated scion of the Midwestern upper-middle class, grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine, demimondain mentor to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, junkie, gun fetishist – was attempting to demonstrate the virtuosity of his marksmanship by doing a ‘William Tell act’. Which involved shooting a glass balanced on the head of Joan Vollmer, his common-law wife and the mother of his five-year old son, William Burroughs Jr. Burroughs père, being both drunk and stoned at the time, allowed his aim to slip, drilling Joan Burroughs through the forehead and killing her instantly. ‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion,’ Burroughs wrote almost three and a half decades later in the introduction to Queer (one of the most affecting tales of unrequited love in the English language), ‘that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death [which] maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.’