After escaping the military, Burroughs moved to Chicago, finding work as an exterminator. In September 1943 he moved back to New York City, ending up in an apartment with future Beat Generation idol and On the Road author Jack Kerouac. Also living in the apartment was his future common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, a spirited Barnard College graduate and an intellectual driving force in her own right during the early years of the Beat movement.

During the summer of his junior year in college, a 21-year-old Burroughs lost his virginity to a bosomy prostitute in an East St. Louis brothel. It cost five dollars per half-hour.

While in New York, Burroughs became addicted to morphine, sparking an almost lifelong affair with drugs, especially heroin. He learned to rob drunks, or "roll lushes," on subway cars and sold heroin in Greenwich Village. Later, he and Vollmer (who was addicted to amphetamines) relocated to Texas to start a pot farm. Their only child, William S. Burroughs Jr., was raised by Burroughs' parents in St. Louis and died in 1981 due to complications related to alcoholism.

Burroughs had frequent run-ins with the law, but his parents bailed him out every time. They also gave him a $300-per-month allowance (a "livable sum," as he put it), allowing Burroughs the freedom to travel.

Kevin Cannon
Kevin Cannon

"It's very much an American tradition, to be an outsider and to remake yourself in a new form," Miles says of Burroughs' exploits. "He did that time and time again. After he shot his wife, for instance."

The killing occurred in Mexico City in 1951. According to James Grauerholz, Burroughs' editor, literary executor and close companion, the author boasted to those present "what kind of shot old Bill is," before taking aim at a glass of water balanced atop Vollmer's head. The bullet struck Vollmer in forehead. All involved were drunk and likely high. Yet again, Burroughs' family money and legal connections allowed him to avoid a two-year prison term for manslaughter.

While awaiting trial, Burroughs did spend a couple of weeks in a Mexican jail. There he began writing what would become the novel Queer, though it wasn't published until 1985.

"Everything was different after the killing," says Miles, who will be at Left Bank Books in the Central West End on Thursday, February 6, to discuss his latest Burroughs biography. "He went off into the Amazon jungle for six months and tried to take drugs that were so powerful that they would change him into a person who could not do that kind of thing," he says. "He thought that he was being occupied by something spiritual that he wanted to get rid of."

Burroughs directly confronts this occupying force in the introduction to Queer: "[T]he death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out."

So I make these last entries in the log book of my St. Louis return — luggage stacked in the lobby — back through the ruins of Market Street to the Union Station nudes waiting there in the dry fountain of an empty square. I have returned to pick up a few pieces of sunlight and shadow — silver paper in the wind-frayed sounds of a distant city. — "St. Louis Return," published in The Paris Review (1965)

Burroughs returned to St. Louis in 1965 when Playboy commissioned him to write a story about his hometown. He stayed in the Chase Park Plaza during the visit. By then he had kicked his hard-drug habit (he relapsed later in life, however) and enjoyed cultural and literary notoriety for Naked Lunch.

The story produced from that homecoming, "St. Louis Return," would prove too weird and disjointed for Playboy, but The Paris Review happily picked it up.

In the article Burroughs expresses dismay over the urbanized, cleaned-up city before him. He describes the under-construction Arch grounds as having "an ominous look like the only landmark to survive an atomic blast."

Burroughs only made a handful of visits to St. Louis after that. In 1989, Robert Lococo, a St. Louis gallery owner trying to make a name for himself in the industry, reached out to Burroughs to commission a series of prints based on the seven deadly sins.

"I did some research on him and I thought, 'Wow, this guy's a real sinner,'" Lococo explains today.

In 1981 Burroughs followed Grauerholz, who essentially managed Burroughs' personal life from the 1970s until his death, to Lawrence, Kansas. There the writer developed into a full-fledged visual artist. His preferred technique involved setting up spray-paint cans near a flat surface, then blasting the cans with a shotgun to create an abstract explosion of color.

Lococo traveled to Lawrence in 1990, and Burroughs shot up seven plywood panels with shotguns and pistols. After treating them with Mylar, Burroughs drew and stenciled the panels to create the templates for the final prints. Lococo keeps the originals safely stored in his Olive Boulevard gallery, but the prints — as well as accompanying panels with Burroughs' authored text — have been shown in galleries around the world.

Burroughs traveled sparingly in his final years. After visiting St. Louis to attend his brother's funeral in 1983, he returned just a few more times for a gallery show and for an appearance at Left Bank Books. He stayed with Lococo during his visits.

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