Review – The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico

The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico by Jorge García-Robles, translated by Daniel C. Schechter / University of Minnesota Press / paperback / 978-0816680634 / 176 pages / October 2013

The Stray Bullet - William S. Burroughs in Mexico

The Stray Bullet – William S. Burroughs in Mexico

In 1990, Jorge García-Robles, professor of literature, traveled from Mexico to meet and interview William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas. Much of the information presented in The Stray Bullet was gleaned from Garcia-Robles’ interviews with Burroughs and those who knew him in Mexico City; extensive research on the Beats’ lives in Mexico filled in the blanks. The Stray Bullet was first published in Mexico in 1995, where it won the Malcolm Lowry Essay Award; it’s now has been deftly translated by Daniel C. Schechter into English and contains a new preface.

Burroughs contributed a written portrait of his Mexican lawyer, Bernabé Jurado for this book, and also supplied previously-unpublished letters written by him while living in Mexico.

García-Robles begins by painting Burroughs’ history in broad strokes. The genesis of what would later be dubbed the Beat Generation’s is clearly explained, introducing us to the various players and untangling their often labyrinthine relationships.

The author deftly takes the reader through Burroughs’ life leading up to his exile in Mexico, an attempt to avoid jail time in the United States. It was an exile which which would be life-changing, ending with his his wife’s accidental death in a tragic game of “William Tell.” It’s an event which is described here in detail, along with its aftermath.

It was also in Mexico City that Burroughs began his novel Junky, which kicked off his writing career, or what García-Robles calls his “fatal vocation.”

García-Robles brings into focus Burroughs’ discovered fascination for the city, and, after the initial bloom wore off, his eventual gritty, drugs-centered reality.

Choosing isolation from much of the city’s popular culture, his time in Mexico City became focused upon drugs, alcohol, writing, and his relationships with other American expats and local seedy characters.

Detailed portraits of some of those characters are included. Kerouac, Cassady, Karr, Ginsberg, Hal Chase, and other American friends flit in and out of the story.

Despite Burroughs’ initial excitement about Mexico, García-Robles highlights his eventual overall disengagement:

Burroughs remained aloof from Mexico’s cultural fireworks. He had other interests. More than artists of intellectuals, it was the bizarre characters of Mexico’s underworld that fascinated him….

In Mexico, Burroughs slithered silently and inexorably, like a shadow, at the edge of the crowd. El hombre invisible.

García-Robles lists – twice! – the many “cultural fireworks” that the author believes Burroughs missed – over a printed page’s worth of them each time. One wonders if these are things that the author himself had wished he’d been able to experience. He scoldingly addresses Burroughs: “Why didn’t you….Well, you were into other things.”

The author has strong feelings about the people in Burroughs’ life. He seems to dislike Allen Ginsberg, repeatedly casting him as overly emotional and immature. Neal Cassady is dubbed the “American Dionysus.”

He sees Joan Vollmer Burroughs as world-weary, emotionally burnt out, and in possession of a death-wish:

Joan deserved Burroughs; she chose him, after all. What did she choose? Death. Burroughs meant death to Joan, her own death. Not stability or protection or raising a family or a compatble marriage, no quest for a shared adventure.

Joan wanted to die and Bill served as her escort to the final precipice.

Photos of Burroughs and some friends are included. So, too are two very graphic ones of Joan’s body, clearly showing the fatal wound to her head. These are gratuitous and voyeuristic, adding nothing to the narrative.

The writing in The Stray Bullet is infused with opinion and emotion. Though the book is very well-researched, if you’re expecting a dispassionate, scholarly account, well, this isn’t the book where you’re going to find it. The Stray Bullet is a full-color, all-senses-engaged trip into Burroughs’ beautiful, tragic Mexican world. Beat Generation readers should find it fascinating.

The Stray Bullet is available here in hardcover and paperback.

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About Denise Enck

Denise is editor of Empty Mirror, as well as a writer and designer.

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