Thursday, February 27, 2014

William S, Burroughs, Private Eye

The Dapper Daddy of the Beats.
Spat out wisecrackery prose like Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe on a speed jag, all clipped and terse and hard as nails, but going further -- way way further -- in his imagery  than Mr. "Tarantula on a Slice of Angel Food Cake" ever dreamed of, using words Gentleman Phil would never utter.
Especially in front of a lady.
But the influence was there.
From the age of eight or so, when little Willie began writing his earliest fiction safe in the confines of stately Burroughs Manor, his little stories were all in the adventure and crime vein. And throughout his life he remained a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, keeping book by Hammett, Chandler et al in his library, sharing them with his Beat buddies like Kerouac and Ginsberg. He even worked detectives into his fiction. One of his most enduring characters, Clem Snide, who appeared in several of his books and stories including Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961) and perhaps most notably Cities of the Red Night (1981), was a private eye.
"The name is Clem Snide -- I'm a Private Ass Hole -- I will take on any job any identity any body -- I will do anything difficult dangerous or downright dirty for a price..."
But -- hold your horses -- Burroughs went beyond writing about gumshoes. He actually became one.
I kid you not.
Burroughs was born into a wealthy St. Louis family, and was given a generous allowance for most of his life. But he also worked a wide variety of jobs before he eventually turned to writing.
He was rejected for service during World War II, but before, during and after the war, he was a bartender, a reporter, an advertising copywriter, an exterminator and briefly -- get this -- a private detective.
In 1944 he applied for a job Merit Protection Services of Chicago (offices were at 612 North Michigan). He was hired to do security work for stores, verifying the honesty of employees, and was dispatched to work the Iowa and Ohio area with the rest of his team (two women and a male supervisor.) 
Their would try to catch suspicious cashiers stealing from the till, using the women on his team to pose as customers, and then swooping in verify the drawer tallied up. It wasn't exactly mean streets stuff -- he didn't carry a gun. He didn't become any more tarnished than he already was, nor was it's likely he was ever afraid.
The problem was that he soon grew bored with the work, He quit after three months.
But twenty years later he savaged his former co-workers in Nova Express (1964), where he dismissed his boss as a badge-carrying Fascist and his two female workers as "cunts."
A class act all the way, this father of the Beats.

Cities of the Night (1981; by William S. Burroughs)
Call Me Burroughs: A Life (2014; by Miles Barry)

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