Junky, written by William S. Burroughs in the mid-1970s gives the reader an inside look into the unrelenting power of heroin addiction. This book is a fictional account but relies heavily on Burroughs’s own experiences. The story is set in the 1940s through 1950s, and chronicles the life of William Lee, a self-proclaimed “junky”. The story begins with Lee’s first encounter with opiates in the mid 1940s. Through an acquaintance, he acquires several grains of morphine with the intent of selling it to some “young hoodlums.” While he has no problem getting rid of the drug, he becomes increasingly curious of its effects. Within a week he has taken his first “shot.” While the initial rush of opiates is an intense, pleasurable feeling, the problem of opiate addiction lies in the physical inability to stop using. The story focuses on Lee’s constant struggle to obtain opiates either through a connection on the streets or from a doctor who has a loose hand for writing prescriptions. Unlike other drugs that are psychologically addictive, “junk” becomes a force that is actually needed by the body in order to function normally. As a result, a true junkie no longer uses for recreational purposes, but rather to keep from becoming violently ill. Burroughs evokes empathy from the reader by effectively describing the hunger that a junky feels in the absence of junk.
Opiates such as morphine, codeine, dilaudid, and heroin are the most widely abused substances in the book. These drugs mimic endorphins, neurotransmitters which are involved in the regulation of pain and pleasure. Since morphine is approved for medical use in the United States, physicians are able to write prescriptions for it. Though now it is becoming less common for doctors to prescribe morphine outside of a controlled setting, in the 1950s the characters of the book found it relatively easy to find doctors who were willing to write frequent prescriptions. Often finding a pharmacy that was stocked with the morphine was a greater obstacle. Most of the opiate use described by Burroughs involved intravenous or skin injections. These types of administering the drug bring about quicker and more intense results then other routes of ingestion.
Several other drugs such as peyote, marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and benzedrine were also introduced throughout the book. These substances were often used in combination with the opiates. For example, a “speedball” is an injection of heroin or morphine mixed with cocaine. Other times, substances such as benzedrine and alcohol were used as a temporary distraction from the withdrawal symptoms associated with opiate cessation. Marijuana users, coined “tea heads”, also surfaced frequently throughout the book.
While the intense effects of an opiate “rush” may at first seem glamorous, the overall tone of the book is one of anguish. The story was told from the perspective of Lee who struggled constantly with his addiction. Attempts to “get clean” were made by many of the characters, including Lee. One of the most popular means of recovering from opiate addiction was to take “the cure” in Lexington. Lexington was a place for addicts to try to kick the habit. Small doses of morphine or dolophine (also known as methadone) were given to patients for the first eight days. The remaining time in Lexington was spent detoxing from the drugs with other addicts. This “cure” was rarely successful and most addicts returned to junk upon release. William Lee’s own experience at Lexington helped him stay clean for four months. For an addict, however, relapse is so inviting.
Lee’s second recovery attempt occurred at a sanitarium after a brief time in jail. This too ended in relapse, the appeal of the drug still gripping on what was left of his soul. Burroughs portrayal of abuse and dependence is very effective throughout the story. His descriptions of “shooting up” as well as his detailed accounts of “junk sick” make opiate addiction surprisingly understanding. He notes the ease of becoming addicted compared to the agony of overcoming addiction. The text is brilliantly written and includes a glossary of terms which is useful for familiarizing the reader with street lingo.
I believe that with drug addiction, happy endings are hard to come by. Addiction leaves a person with scars both emotionally and physically. It is possible to move on with your life but impossible to regain the time lost and damage done due to substance abuse. William Lee is a character not unlike Burroughs himself who lived a drug filled existence. Burroughs leaves the reader with a wondering sense of what became of William Lee. At the close of the story, Lee has moved away from junk and is searching for a new “fix.” He has his sights set upon yage, a hallucinogenic used by Indians which is said to increase telepathy. One can only imagine the possibilities that William Lee’s life may have taken after the final pages of Junky.