The last novel I read by William S. Burroughs was about twenty-two years ago. After I graduated from university I was ravenously hungry for anything other than French or German literature. I took up and read the entire fiction oeuvre by Christopher Isherwood, then started on Jack Kerouac and Burroughs. I remember that I bought Queer; for one dollar at the Salvation Army on 6 April 1990, yet left it on my bookshelf unread until now. It had no dust jacket when I bought it, and as always I post photos of the actual book I read to my blog. I do not have a choice of photo when I cross-post my reviews to Amazon.com.

I read this novel with Burroughs’s old-man gravelly voice in mind, as though he himself were reading each page of Queer to me. Queer tells the story of Lee, a drug addict modelled after Burroughs, and his time frequenting the bars and hideaway gay joints in Mexico City, scoring junk and getting laid. Lee is smitten with young men, most especially Gene Allerton, who is tall, thin, high-cheekboned and golden-haired. Allerton declines Lee’s advances at first yet never says in unequivocal terms that he is straight. The two eventually make a pact where Lee cares for Allerton while the young man allows Lee to sleep with him twice a week. Lee is constantly asking Allerton for additional sexual favours yet Allerton reminds him that that was not their agreement. Lee seems to accept these terms after being told so yet again. The two travel from Mexico City to Panama to Ecuador in search of Yage, or Ayahuasca, a psychoactive drug native to the area. Lee has heard amazing stories about Ayahuasca. He wants to find a scientist who will help him synthesize the drug and bring it back to the United States, yet the only people he can find involved in the study of Ayahuasca in the jungles of Ecuador won’t talk to him and they keep their discoveries to themselves. 

Burroughs wrote descriptions that I frequently reread as I tried to take in the full effect hallucinogens had on the writer: 

“Saturday night Lee met Allerton in the Cuba, a bar with an interior like the set for a surrealist ballet. The walls were covered with murals depicting underwater scenes. Mermaids and mermen in elaborate arrangements with huge goldfish stared at the customers with fixed, identical expressions of pathic dismay. Even the fish were invested with an air of ineffectual alarm. The effect was disquieting, as though these androgynous beings were frightened by something behind or to one side of the customers, who were made uneasy by this inferred presence. Most of them took their business someplace else.” 

While Lee is in Quito in search of Ayahuasca, he encounters a holy man. A “bitch reporter” comes along to interview him and Lee stands by listening to the exchange: 

“The reporter says, ‘Will there be war with Russia, Mahatma? Will Communism destroy the civilized world? Is the soul immortal? Does God exist?’
”The Mahatma opens his eyes and compresses his lips and spits two long, red streams of betel nut juice out through his nose holes. It runs down over his mouth and he licks it back in with a long, coated tongue and says, ‘How in the fuck should I know?’ The acolyte says, ‘You heard the man. Now cut. The Swami wants to be alone with his medications.’ Come to think of it, that is the wisdom of the East. The Westerner thinks there is some secret he can discover. The East says, ‘How the fuck should I know?'”
That interview made me laugh out loud. Queer is a short novel and seems incomplete. The best part was the South American quest yet it ended suddenly. Queer employs hip drug lingo which I at first did not understand but after reading on I could figure out the meanings through context. In spite of Lee’s attraction to every slender young man he sees, Burroughs wrote the sex scenes in minimalist language and Queer wouldn’t even be rated R if it were made into a movie directly from page to film.  

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