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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Wild Boys (1971) by William S. Burroughs

Cover of the first edition of The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs.

The Wild Boys (1971)
by William S. Burroughs

  I purchased The Wild Boys while in Paris a couple weeks ago, at the excellent English language book store, Shakespeare and Company.  In between going to Euro knockout round soccer matches, I also got a chance to see the Beat Generation retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.   The exhibit is a good reminder of just how enduring Burroughs was within the context of that literary movement.  He is present in the beginning, via a Burroughs adding machine placed at the entrance, and he is present at the end, posed in front of a sign that says "Danger" as an established literary statesman.

  You can trace the general trend of his books with the Pompidou retrospective.  From the roman a clef/exploitation tales of Junky and Queer,  to his experimental/science fiction/drugs/gay sex obsessed mid period, defined most notably by Naked Lunch and this book, into his late period of wholly experimental "cut ups" whose works are now mostly unread.  So you can be an early Burroughs guy, a mid Burroughs guy but anyone who identifies a cut-up text as his favorite Burroughs books is a liar.  And even though Naked Lunch dominates the attention paid to mid-period Burroughs, The Wild Boys is a solid second text.  One which I read for the first time only in Paris.   Despite having a good idea of what lay inside, both from the exhibit and my own reading of his other books, I was taken aback at just how ahead of his time he was in terms of a post-industrial dystopian landscape.

  I actually paused mid book to look back at Phillip K. Dicks short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to confirm that it was published prior to the publication of The Wild Boys.  The striking techno-dystopian science fiction is almost entirely overwhelmed by Burroughs relentless depiction of gay sex.  It's not like that was a theme absent from his prior work, but man there sure is a lot of gay sex in a book under 200 pages.   The Wild Boys is also one of those books with a profound impact on the Anglo-American counter-culture as embodied by music and pop-culture.

  The Wild Boys is a step below works like Warhol's Soup Cans or the impact of Naked Lunch itself, in terms of impact on the popular culture but not by much; and that is especially clear if you read this book and then sit down and think about everything it anticipates.  Finally The Wild Boys is another good example of how many works one associates with the culture of "The Sixties" weren't actually published until the 1970's.

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