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A sad incident in a bookstore.

The Education of William Burroughs

On my way to the bookshop café I browse through the literary section and come across new editions of the works of my old hero William Burroughs. For over two decades I haven't read a single line by Burroughs and revisiting the idols of one's youth is usually inadvisable, a trip down empty roads at the end of which lies disappointment.

I grab something called "My Education" in hope of being treated to Burrough's version of Tom Brown's Schooldays with ribald tales from his own stint at that New Mexico boarding school.

As I settle down with my cup of hot chocolate, disappointment, indeed, sets in. "My Education" consists of scribbled fragments culled by greedy editors trading in on Burrough's reputation. These fragments are not shored against his ruins. Scattered thoughts and observations, rendered in that desiccated prose. These snippets do encompass Burrough's world, though, that of a zombie film with rancor and alieanation in lieu of violence and bloodshed. His genius is still manifest but as that of a roué manqué, a literary genius who produced no work of genius. His main contribution to the world of letters was his presence as an outlaw, a rasping drone of dissent in the face of whatever humbug was current at the time. Burroughs was a living riposte to everything and now that he's six feet under can we shore up his words against our ruins, do they survive in isolation of his reputation, without his declaining them on the lecture circuit?

These random shards of prose do capture a sense of disillusion with things that have been replaced with different sources of discontent. Has Burroughs, in fact, served his purpose? I set the book aside.


A rosy-cheeked middle-aged man in a leather jacket - probably dead pale on better days - seems to be chatting about cigarettes with three of the bookstore's clerks in front of the empty counter as I pick up my usual batch of magazines. Two policemen, a man and a woman, stride towards me.

The two police officers march right past me and head for the counter. The middle-aged man, all clad in black as if in some backhanded tribute to Burroughs' heyday in the late eighties, insists that the presentable-but-hip bookstore staff stole his cigarettes - over their protestations that he was smoking inside the store - and refuses to leave the premises.

The cops ask him to take his business elsewhere. He shoots back that he's comfortable right where he is.

The male cop reiterates their request in a more commanding voice. The man says he'll leave when good and ready.

The cops demand some form of identification. "Do you have your ID?" snaps the man. "As civil servants you're obliged to present identification on request. I was a police officer for two years."

"Come with us. Now."


"Are you going to accompany us to the station?"

"I've no intention of doing so." No hint of indignation informs the man's voice, rather a tone of long-suffering forbearance.

The two cops take off their jackets in silence and the male officer wrestles the man to the floor while the lady handcuffs him from behind. They pinion him while the adrenaline rushes out of his body. Most of the customers wait patiently by the shelves. Some avert their eyes out of modesty or plain lack of interest.

The man does not look very subdued as he is rustled out of the store in handcuffs. Perhaps the whole spectacle was a protest against his own loneliness, against his insignificance in relation to the whole ritual of an evening at the bookstore, much like Burrough's grandstanding when he would climb to the rooftops and shout "I have thunder in my breast" at the indifferent world.

I depart without my magazines, no longer in need of them, somehow, oddly, inexplicably, more at peace with William Burroughs and his wayward education.


words: Jónas Knútsson, Iceland (more)
image: 'breaking away' - Natalie Abadzis, London (byebyeballoon)


another literary departure: Erasing All the Sacred Texts (#19)


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BluePrintReview - issue 26 - identity