William S. Burroughs never planned on being a writer. He’d written stories as a child and had a superb literary background, but as a young man his only aspiration was to explore America’s seedy urban underworlds. When he finally became a writer, it was only because of the unwritten rule that everybody who hangs out with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg shall write at least one book. “Junky,” Burroughs’ first book, was a straightforward account of his life as a heroin junkie. Now, forty years later, the book sparkles with literary promise, but in the early fifties it was suitable for publication only as a sensationalistic pulp paperback. Ginsberg’s friend Carl Solomon‘s uncle ran Ace Books, and Ace was so nervous about taking responsibility for this shockingly frank story that they coupled it with another book by a narcotics agent, telling how he chased and caught people like Burroughs.
Not wanting his family to know he had written such a nasty book (they supported him financially), Burroughs assumed his mother’s maiden name, Lee. “Junky” by William Lee was forgotten soon after it came out in 1953, and rediscovered after ‘Naked Lunch‘ made Burroughs famous.
One of the most memorable early scenes in the book describes how Burroughs insinuated himself into the underworld by making a drug deal with two sleazy characters, one of them based on Herbert Huncke, who would also be a published writer by the time Kerouac and Ginsberg were through with him.
NOTE ON SPELLING: A heroin addict is a junkie, not a junky, as far as I’m concerned. But I’ve always known Burroughs’ book to be called ‘Junky’ — until I found the original Ace Books cover and realized that the original title was ‘Junkie’ after all. So I have no idea why the book is universally known as ‘Junky.’ This is, nevertheless, the case.