Naked Lunch at 50

Naked Lunch and an Ann Arbor Book Collector

By Karl Pohrt © 2009

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the original publication of Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs. Grove Press has just issued a beautifully packaged slipcase cloth edition, reasonably priced, to introduce this key mid 20th century American text to a new audience.

I suppose one might describe the book as a fictionalized memoir of addiction, but it quickly transcends the genre by jettisoning a conventional story line and spinning off into what Burroughs called his routines—phantasmagoric nightmares that mimic the drug experience. Naked Lunch is hypnotic, dreamy and often very funny—Burroughs draws on the conventions of hard-boiled detective novels, horror and science fiction—but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. The book reads like Walt Whitman on a bad acid trip.

Drug addiction in this wild and ferocious narrative is a metaphor for any kind of habituation, which Burroughs says is “a drag” (as in our habits drag us into a narcotized stupor). It is uncompromisingly radical in both style and message.

There is an interesting Ann Arbor connection to the new edition of Naked Lunch. Local real estate developer Arthur Nusbaum, president of Steppingstone Properties, provided Grove Press with a facsimile of the original cover art, which Grove used for the slipcase and cloth cover of the new anniversary edition.

Nusbaum has one of the largest collections of William Burroughs work in private hands. His collection includes drawings, handwritten letters and postcards by Burroughs and the manuscript (typewritten and handwritten) of Tornado Alley, as well as a copy of Naked Lunch signed to Nusbaum by Burroughs. The Burroughs material is the core of a larger collection of Beat Generation writers that Nusbaum has been assembling for over twenty five years.

One might be forgiven for wondering how it is that someone working in real estate management was drawn to Burroughs, the most transgressive of Beat writers.

Nusbaum strikes one as the polar opposite of Burroughs, whose flat affect and gray spectral presence were deadpan funny and slightly creepy at the same time. Instead, Arthur is openly passionate in conversation and is generous in his willingness to show his collection.

He was a student in Honors English at UM from 78-80 and credits UM English professor Herbert Barrows, Jr. for encouraging his interest in reading and collecting.

“He was the first person who urged me to read widely and seriously,” Nusbaum told me.

“Professor Barrows met William Burroughs at Harvard when they were both students, but he didn’t like him—especially after Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife. He told me he felt Burroughs cloaked himself in a mystique of debauchery.”

Nevertheless, Nusbaum recalls that his first reading of Naked Lunch was a profoundly riveting experience. He was moved by Burroughs’ accurate ear for idiomatic American speech and his distinctive voice.

“Naked Lunch is funny, haunting and elegiac,” he said. “It is a vision of 1950s America that is hallucinatory in its intensity, a world filled with loneliness and alienation. Burroughs was around a decade older than Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and he wrote in the era of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a time of robotic ‘Mad Men.’

“Burroughs felt the extremity of heroin addiction gave him a special insight into the mechanisms behind and under the surface of our lives, which were basically systems of control. He saw the relationship of pusher and user reproduced throughout our culture. All producers and customers in this society are replicating dealers and junkies according to Burroughs. His savage satires of corporate life and the military industrial complex grew out of what he called ‘the facts of general validity.’ He saw his project as an attempt to sabotage the systems of control.

“Burroughs’ impact on our culture goes way beyond the world of literature. He influenced David Bowie, Steeley Dan, Soft Machine, Dead Fingers Talk, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Robert Crumb, the Beatles and many other musicians, writers and visual artists.”

After graduation from UM, Nusbaum briefly lived in the Detroit suburbs near where he grew up, but he felt like “a square peg in a round hole.” He returned to Ann Arbor in 1992.

“I’ve always been happier here. Ann Arbor is sympathetic to the New Urbanism, which I’ve advocated for in my professional life. And I love the rich cultural life this community offers.”

Nusbaum is about to embark on a second career as a bookseller. He and Mike Fulton, the business manager at Steppingstone Properties, are launching Third Mind Books, an online internet bookstore that specializes in William Burroughs and Beat Generation items.

“I don’t want to end up with all my stuff in crates, like Citizen Kane,” Nusbaum laughs. “This will give me a chance to trim down my collection.”

Nusbaum still delights in tracking down rare books. He proudly showed me a pristine copy of the Ace paperback edition of Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, which Burroughs published under the pseudonym William Lee in 1953. Arthur purchased it at the Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair a few years ago.

One of the more amusing items in Nusbaum’s collection is a letter to Burroughs, dated 1960, from J. Roberts, who worked in the Sales Department of L Light and Company Limited in Buckinghamshire, England. He acknowledges Burroughs’ order for 2 grams of Mescalin Sulphate but regrets to inform him that “we are completely out of stock of the product.”

William Burroughs died at age 83 in 1997. Naked Lunch, his controversial masterwork, is a testament brought to us from the cliff’s edge of human experience.

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