milestones in american pulp: william s. burroughs’ naked lunch

A true genius and first mythographer of the mid-twentieth century, William Burroughs is the lineal successor to James Joyce. Naked Lunch is a banquet you will never forget.
— JG Ballard
Prophesied with unerring accuracy the hideous modes that human behaviour would assume in the post-apocalyptic second half of the twentieth century. Naked Lunch is essential reading for anyone who maintains any illusions about anything.
— Will Self

The opening pages of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch:

Naked Lunch Image

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there

making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool
pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper   I throw
away at Washington Square Station, vault   a turnstile
and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown
A train… Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League,
advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me.
I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the
type comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking
about right hooks and the Dodgers, call the counterman
in Nedick’s by his first name. A real asshole. And right
on time this narcotics dick in a white trench coat (imagine
tailing somebody in a white trench coat—trying
to pass as a fag I guess) hit the platform. I can hear the
way he would say it holding my outfit in his left hand,
right hand on his piece: "I think you dropped some-
thing, fella"
 But the subway is moving.
  "So long flatfoot!" I yell, giving the fruit his B production.
I look into the fruit’s eyes, take in the white teeth,
the Florida tan, the two hundred dollar sharkskin suit,
the button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and carrying
The News as a prop. "Only thing I read is Little Abner."
 A square wants to come on hip…. Talks about "pod,"
and smoke it now and then, and keeps some around to
offer the fast Hollywood types.
 "Thanks, kid," I say, "I can see you’re one of our own."
His face lights up like a pinball machine, with stupid,
pink effect.
 "Grassed on me he did," I said morosely. (Note:
Grass is English thief slang for inform.) I drew closer
and laid my dirty junky fingers on his sharkskin sleeve.
"And us blood brothers in the same dirty needle, I can
tell you in confidence he is due for a hot shot." (Note:
This is a cap of poison junk sold to addict for liquidation 
purposes. Often given to informers. Usually the hot
shot is strychnine since it tastes and looks like junk.)
 "Ever see a hot shot hit, kid? I saw the Gimp catch
one in Philly. We rigged his room with a one-way
whorehouse mirror and charged a sawski to watch it.
He never got the needle out of his arm. They don’t if
the shot is right. That’s the way they find them, dropper
full of clotted blood hanging out of a blue arm. The
look in his eyes when it hitKid, it was tasty….
 "Recollect when I am traveling with the Vigilante,
best Shake Man in the industry. Out in Chi… We is
working the fags in Lincoln Park. So one night the Vigilante turns up for work in cowboy boots and a black
vest with a hunka tin on it and a lariat slung over his
 "So I says: ‘What’s with you? You wig already?’
 "He just looks at me and says: ‘Fill your hand stranger’
and hauls out an old rusty six shooter and I take off
across Lincoln Park, bullets cutting all around me. And
he hangs three fags before the fuzz nail him. I mean
the Vigilante earned his moniker….
 "Ever notice how many expressions carry over from
queers to con men? Like ‘raise,’ letting someone know
you are in the same line?
 "’Get her!’
 "’Get the Paregoric Kid giving that mark the build
 "’Eager Beaver wooing him much too fast.’
 "The Shoe Store Kid (he got that moniker shaking
down fetishists in shoe stores) say: ‘Give it to a mark
with K.Y. and he will come back moaning for more.’
And when the Kid spots a mark he begin to breathe
heavy. His face swells and his lips turn purple like an
Eskimo in heat. Then slow, slow he comes on the mark,
feeling for him, palpating him with fingers of rotten


"The Rube has a sincere little boy look, burns through
him like blue neon. That one stepped right off a Sator-
day Evening Post cover with a string of bullheads, and
preserved himself in junk. His marks never beef and the
Bunko people are really carrying a needle for the Rube.
One day Little Boy Blue starts to slip, and what crawls
out would make an ambulance attendant puke. The
Rube flips in the end, running through empty automats
and subway stations, screaming: ‘Come back, kid!!
Come back!l’ and follows his boy right into the East
River, down through condoms and orange peels, mosaic
of floating newspapers, down into the silent black ooze
with gangsters in concrete, and pistols pounded Hat to
avoid the probing finger of prurient ballistic experts."
 And the fruit is thinking: "What a character!! Wait
till I tell the boys in Clark’s about this one." He’s a
acter collector, would stand still for Joe Gould’s seagull
act. So I put it on him for a sawski and make a meet to
sell him some "pod" as he calls it, thinking, "I’ll catnip
the jerk." (Note: Catnip smells like marijuana when it
burns.   Frequently   passed on   the incautious   or unin-
 "Well," I said, tapping my arm, "duty calls. As one
judge said to another: ‘Be just and if you can’t be just,
be arbitrary.’"
 I cut into the automat and there is Bill Gains huddled
in someone else’s overcoat looking like a 1910 banker
with paresis, and Old Bart, shabby and inconspicuous,
dunking pound cake with his dirty fingers, shiny over
the dirt.
 I had some uptown customers Bill took care of, and
Bart knew a few old relics from hop smoking times,
spectral janitors, grey as ashes, phantom porters sweeping out dusty halls with a slow old man’s hand,
ing and spitting in the junk-sick dawn, retired
fences in theatrical hotels, Pantopon Rose 
the old
madam from Peoria, stoical Chinese waiters 
never show
sickness. Bart sought them out with his old 
junky walk,
patient and cautious and slow, dropped into 
their blood
less hands a few hours of warmth.
 I made the round with him once for kicks. You know
how old people lose all shame about eating, and it
makes you puke to watch them? Old junkies are the
same about junk. They gibber and squeal at sight of it.
The spit hangs off their chin, and their stomach rumbles
and all their guts grind in peristalsis while they cook
up, dissolving the body’s decent skin, you expect any
moment a great blob of protoplasm will Hop right out
and surround the junk. Really disgust you to see it.
 "Well, my boys will be like that one day," I thought
philosophically. "Isn’t life peculiar?"
 So back downtown by the Sheridan Square Station
in case the dick is lurking in a broom closet.
 Like I say it couldn’t last. I knew they were out there
powowing and making their evil fuzz magic, putting
dolls of me in Leavenworth. "No use sticking needles in
that one, Mike."
 I hear they got Chapin with a doll. This old eunuch
dick just sat in the precinct basement hanging a doll of
him day and night, year in year out. And when Chapin
hanged in Connecticut, they find this old creep with his
neck broken.
 "He fell downstairs," they say. You know the old cop
 Junk is surrounded by magic and taboos, curses and
amulets. I could find my Mexico City connection by
radar. "Not this street, the next, right… now left. Now
right again," and there he is, toothless old woman face
and cancelled eyes.
 I know this one pusher walks around humming a
tune and everybody he passes takes it up. He is so grey
and spectral and anonymous they don’t see him and
think it is their own mind humming the tune. So the
customers come in on Smiles, or I’m in the Mood for
Love, or They Say We’re Too Young to Go Steady, or
whatever the song is for that day. Sometime you can see
maybe fifty ratty-looking junkies squealing sick, running
along behind a boy with a harmonica, and there is The
Man on a cane seat throwing bread to the swans, a fat
queen drag walking his Afghan hound through the East
Fifties, an old wino pissing against an El post, a radical
Jewish student giving out leaflets in Washington Square,
a tree surgeon, an exterminator, an advertising fruit in
Nedick’s where he calls the counterman by his first
name. The world network of junkies, tuned on a cord
of rancid jissom, tying up in furnished rooms, shivering
in the junk-sick morning. (Old Pete men suck the black
smoke in the Chink laundry back room and Melanchol
Baby dies from an overdose of time or cold turkey withdrawal of breath.) In Yemen, Paris, New Orleans,
ico City and Istanbulshivering under the air hammers
and the steam shovels, shrieked junky curses at one
another neither of us heard, and The Man leaned out
of a passing steam roller and I coped in a bucket of tar.
(Note: Istanbul is being torn down and rebuilt, espe-
cially shabby junk quarters. Istanbul has more heroin
junkies than NYC.) The living and the dead, in sickness 
or on the nod, hooked or kicked or hooked again,
come in on the junk beam and the Connection is eating
Chop Suey on Dolores Street, Mexico D.F., dunking
pound cake in the automat, chased up Exchange Place
by a baying pack of People. (Note: People is New
Orleans slang for narcotic fuzz. )
 The old Chinaman dips river water into a rusty tin
can, washes down a yen pox hard and black as a cinder.
(Note: Yen pox is the ash of smoked opium. )
 Well, the fuzz has my spoon and dropper, and I know
they are coming in on my frequency led by this blind
pigeon known as Willy the Disk. Willy has a round,
disk mouth lined with sensitive, erectile black hairs. He
is blind from shooting in the eyeball, his nose and palate
eaten  away sniffing H, his body a mass of scar tissue
hard and dry as wood. He can only eat the shit now
with that mouth, sometimes sways out on a long tube
of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk.
He follows my trail all over the city into rooms I move
out already, and the fuzz   walks in   some newlyweds
from Sioux Falls.
 "All right, Lee! I Come out from behind that strap-on!
We know you" and pull the man’s prick off straightaway.
 Now Willy is getting hot and you can hear him always
out there in darkness (he only functions   at night)
whimpering, and feel the terrible urgency of that blind,
seeking mouth. When they move in for the bust, Willy
goes all out of control, and  his mouth eats a hole right
through the door. If the cops weren’t there to restrain
him with a stock probe, he would suck the juice right
out of every junky he ran down.
 I knew, and everybody else knew they had the Disk
on me. And if my kid customers ever hit the stand: "He
force me to commit all kinda awful sex acts in return for
junk" I could kiss the street good-bye.
 So we stock up on H, buy a second-hand Studebaker,
and start West.

The Vigilante copped out as a schizo possession case:
 "I was standing outside myself trying to stop those
hangings with ghost fingers…. I am a ghost wanting
what every ghost wants—a bodyafter the Long Time
moving through odorless alleys of space where no life
is only the colorless no smell of death…. Nobody can
breathe and smell it through pink convolutions of gristle
laced with crystal snot, time shit and black blood filters
of flesh."
 He stood there in elongated court room shadow,
face torn like a broken film by lusts and hungers
larval organs stirring in the tentative ectoplasmic
of junk kick ( ten days on ice at time of the 
First Hear
ing) flesh that fades at the first silent
touch of junk.
 I saw it happen. Ten pounds lost in ten minutes
ing with the syringe in one hand holding his pants
with the other, his abdicated flesh burning in a cold
yellow halo, there in the New York hotel room…
night table litter of candy boxes, cigarette butts
cading out of three ashtrays, mosaic of sleepless
and sudden food needs of the kicking addict 
nursing his
baby flesh….
 The Vigilante is prosecuted in Federal Court under
a lynch bill and winds up in a Federal Nut House
cially designed for the containment of ghosts:
prosaic impact of objects… washstand… 
toilet… bars… there they are… this is it…
lines cut… nothing beyond… Dead End… And 
Dead End in every face….
 The physical changes were slow at first, then jumped
forward in black chunks, falling through his slack tissue,
washing away the human lines…. In his place of total
darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth… but no organ
is constant as regards either function or position… sex
organs sprout anywhere… rectums open, defecate and
close… the entire organism changes color and con-
sistency in split-second adjustments…..

William Burroughs, Naked Lunch


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