• Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs

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    Cover by Thomi Wroblewski

          "The days seem to flash by like a speeded-up chase scene in a 1920s comedy.......
            patrols always behind them, bullets thudding into flesh, bombs in Middletown bars 
            and theaters and restaurants. A wake of glass, blood and brains and the hot meaty 
            smell of entrails remind Audrey of a rabbit he had once seen dissected in biology 
            class. A girl had fainted. He could see her slump to the floor with a soft plop.
                Shatter Day always closer..."
                                                                                                                       page 255

    Before I jumped feet first into the kaleidescope of drugs, piracy, private eyes, homo-erotic sex, hangings and boys adventure pulp parodies that is Cities of the Red Night, I read a terrific short biography of Burroughs written by Phil Baker and published by a very cool British publisher Reaktion Press. Part of their "Critical Lives" series (I've read their books on Gertrude Stein and John Luis Borges...excellent books), William S. Burroughs packs as much biographical/critical information as you can in 192 pages. I like how Phil Baker writes and he, for the most part, is pretty even-handed and objective about wild boy Bill. Some parts struck me as new even though I read the huge (and probably definitive) bio of Burroughs by Ted Morgan years ago. Burroughs infatuation with Scientology, his continuous search for alternate reality/possession systems and theories (including attending a weekend seminar on "out of body" travel) and his discovery of the deep joy of living with cats late in life, all added dimensions to his personality that made reading Cities such an interesting, but frustrating experience.

    Cities of the Red Night is the first book of a trilogy of novels Burroughs started writing in the early 80s (the other two books are The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands) while living in "The Bunker" in New York which, years before, had been the locker room of the YMCA building at 222 Bowery. Windowless and without any natural light, Burroughs liked the vast space and entertained a growing coterie of punk followers given celebrity status as a Beat icon. He also became addicted to heroin again, which he found preferable to the curse of alcohol.

    One fellow who showed up at the Bunker was James Grauerholz, who after a short affair with Burroughs, became his amanuensis and eventual literary executor of the Burroughs estate. One of the dedications in Cities of the Red Night is "to James Graueholz, who edited this book into present time". How much James actually kept and/or cut from this novel is anyone's guess. It's an already fragmented novel, so you can't really tell. Certainly it's not easy to write when you are stoned, although Burroughs had learned to manage his habit over many, many years of his addiction. Still, it's important to remember he wrote it in the Bunker while living the life of a cult figure and coping with renewed heroin addiction. That sex, drugs, youth, addiction and disease figure prominently is no coincidence. Burroughs was writing his life out on the pages.

    There's really no way to capture the "story" of Cities of the Red Night. Ostensibly it winds three strands of story which take place in different time periods: one is a boys-adventure pirate story taking place in the 18th century where the pirates are attempting to live their lives and seek freedom based on the "articles' written by a real-life Captain Mission whose community died out; another is a modern day (80's) story of a private eye (Clem Snide, Private Asshole....Burroughs has great wit with names) who's investigating the ritual sexual murder of several boys. There are also other plot strands including the CIA and Virus B-23 which sounds very much like an AIDS-like plague, although this book was written well before AIDS became widely known. Add to the mix, Burroughs speculation on the origins of various races (red, white, yellow) and his obsessions with hanging as an erotic act, plus the many and varied uses of male semen and you have a very funny, strange, fascinating, repulsive and occasionally boring novel that is beautifully written and, well, perhaps not that well edited. 

    Reading Cities of the Red Night is an on-again, off-again experience. I actually began another book while I was reading Cities. This was around the middle of the novel where the book is the weakest. It's also very strange that the book starts out somewhat traditionally (after an invocation to a God and the story of Captain James Mission; all unneeded in my view) and then proceeds to become more incoherent and scatological as it progresses. Eventually, you feel that Burroughs is just trying to insult you or shock you. Perhaps this worked in the 80s, but it is just boring for contemporary readers. 

    Then the novel starts catching fire again right around the time of the big battle between ancient cities starts (whose names were created by Brion Gysin, long time influence on Burroughs). Zipping back and forth between times and various story strands, Burroughs eventually winds everything up in a great ending that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could. Something I think Burroughs would have enjoyed hearing about. 
    The ending is a ironic and twisted and utterly perfect. I was left with an odd mix of feelings at the end of the novel, but mostly admiration for it's daring and a certain amount of sadness for several of the characters, most specifically Audrey. 

    I recommend this novel for anyone who has already read Burroughs and want another fix. New readers may struggle unless you have some reading stamina, an open mind and a good sense of humor. Burroughs likes to fuck with the reader and sometimes it's uncomfortable reading. But maybe that's just me. 

    On to The Place of Dead Roads

    PS be sure to check out the Reaktion books site for the Burroughs bio and the rest of their excellent books. Also, the edition I read was published by Picador (UK publisher) in 1982 with a cover design by Thomi Wroblewski, who has designed other Burroughs covers in a fantastic style that perfectly matches Burroughs own. So if cover design means anything to you, get this edition. Shop at the abebooks.com site and put Picador in the publisher category for copies of the this edition you can purchase.