JR: Tony came my way through the very cool Patrick DeWitt, and so far, I’m liking Tony’s new book, Sick City, which goes on sale now. It’s published by the very hip Harper Perennial, who lately seem to be right on the mark with their list. Check out Tony’s book…
WHEN I FELL IN LOVE by Tony O’Neill
I grew up in a small, northern English satellite town called Blackburn, which had nothing much going for it except crap weather, rampant racism, and a football team that never won. I didn’t grow up in a particularly literary environment, and until I asked my parents to put one in my bedroom aged ten, there were no bookshelves in my house. I read because I grew up in England, and there were only 4 TV channels. I was an only child. When faced with a Saturday afternoon either watching television coverage of darts matches, going to football matches, or playing in the grey rain that seemed to bathe the down most of the time, I became a reader by default.
The first books I read were things like Stephen King, page-turners. I still have a soft spot for King. Its hard not to respect a writer who did it by himself, got no respect from the establishment and still managed to sell a shit-load of books. All this while being a raging alcoholic coke head, too. Anyway, I always liked books that had some violence and sex in them.
The first book that really changed me, though, was William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I was thirteen years old when David Cronenberg‘s adaptation of Burroughs’ most famous book of hit cinemas. Previous to that, I had seen things like Scanners and The Fly on late night television. When I heard that the book Naked Lunch was supposedly strange and controversial, I went to the one bookstore we had in town to find it. They didn’t have it, so I had to order it. I remember the old woman who worked behind the counter looking quite concerned. “Naked Lunch?” she said. The emphasis on Naked reddened my cheeks. She obviously thought it was some kind of smutty sex novel, the kind that they used to sell in sex shops back then. This was before the Internet was widely available in England, the days when people would still actually jerk off to smutty paperbacks with no images at all, apart from a garish illustration on the cover. Which just goes to show you that the people who have benefited most from the digital revolution have definitely been the wankers.
Anyway, I checked in every weekend, until the book finally arrived. It was a hideous edition, tied into the movie with a picture of Peter Weller and a Mugwump on the cover. I still had no idea what Naked Lunch was even about. I took it home and read it. After I was done, I still had no idea what Naked Lunch was about.
What I did know was that it disturbed me. It was a similar reaction to seeing the film Eraserhead for the first time. These events both happened in the same year, the year I turned 13. I rented Eraserhead because I was taken with the black and white image on the videocassette, not because I had any clue about who David Lynch was. Eraserhead made no sense to me, but gave me strange hallucinatory dreams about steam erupting from pipes and screaming deformed babies for months afterward.
As for Naked Lunch, I had never before read a novel that did not have a storyline, or even a main character. It took me a long time to strop trying to make sense of it as continuous narrative and accept it for what it was – a series of vignettes. This was a totally new form for me. I found sections of it erotic, others repulsive. I found all of the talk of drugs confusing. I knew next to nothing about heroin and it’s effects, apart from these wonderful ads the British government did in the 80s with the tag line “Heroin Screws You Up”. The image under this slogan was of an emaciated young boy, sitting in the barren corner of some squat, who looked for all the world like a skinnier version of a Calvin Klein model. He had prominent cheekbones, and bad skin. I thought he looked really, really cool. Evidently, so did other people. Years later, when I was a heroin addict in London, many people my age would reminisce fondly that those ads had been their first exposure to the glamour of heroin.
I tucked Naked Lunch away for a long time. Sometimes I would crack open the covers, and try to read it again. When I saw the movie, I was disappointed. I had to wait for it to come out on video, because it was an 18 cert (equivalent of an X in America) and anyway, our local cinema didn’t even show it. But I realized that in trying to impose some kind of structure to the narrative, Cronenberg had actually done a massive disservice to the source text. Whereas Burroughs book was weird and confusing, I was actually bored by the movie. I got into music and moved away from home when I was 18 to join a band. I toured around, and eventually crash landed in Los Angeles.
Years later, I would read my next Burroughs book: Junky. I was already a heroin user at the time. A girl I used to get high with lent me her copy. “You’ll like this one,” she said. “It’s the best book ever about being a junkie.”
This girl had a lot of opinions about the best book / song / film about the life of an addict. All junkies do. Just for record, I’d say: “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground, and Drugstore Cowboy by Gus van Sant for song and movie. I have to agree with about Junky. It was amazing. And much easier to follow than Naked Lunch. I really sympathized with the lead character. Reading Junky brought me back to Naked Lunch. Thinking that it might make a bit more sense to me now, I picked up a copy at the LA public library, and read it again. In the intervening years, it was like I had somehow managed to learn the cryptic language that Burroughs was speaking in. Of course the drug talk and the drug slang – which was surprisingly not as out of date as you’d imagine – made perfect sense to me. I knew what it felt like to hear the flutes of Ramadan in the junk sick morning, all right. And away from England, that sly, deadpan humor suddenly made sense to me. There was something profoundly American about Burroughs’s sense of humor, and suddenly what was once scary, incomprehensible and confusing, now seemed as funny as hell to me.
For me, reading Naked Lunch is a bit like what reading The Bible must be like for those religious types I see sitting on the subway reading that book. I still pick it up sometimes, and read a section, or even just a paragraph, and I get something new from it every time. Some people still think that it’s a confusing mess, and all I can do is feel bad for them. They really are missing out on something special.
I wonder if the book would have had the same power if I didn’t have so many thrilling associations with it – guilt, the sense that I was reading something I shouldn’t, that I was transgressing somehow? To me, back then, books still felt dangerous. There was a rebelliousness about reading books like that, especially in a culture were reading wasn’t particularly encouraged. None of my friends at school read for pleasure. At least not as far as I knew. You kept stuff like that secret; otherwise you would be laughed at. Owning books felt as illicit as having pornography, or illicit stashes of low-grade hash.
Yeah, it was love all right. Years later I had the privilege to do some work inside The Bunker, Burroughs NYC hangout through the late 70s and early 80s, via the poet and performance artist John Giorno. I sat at his table; my hands touched the scarred wood that Old Bull Lee’s hands must have touched at one point. The books of Burroughs, along with Herbert Huncke, Dan Fante, Alexander Trocchi, Charles Bukowski, etc etc were instrumental in my decision to try to quit heroin and write instead. That and a woman who loved me, and a daughter who was about to be born. But in those quiet moments of desperation, when I was sick and hurting, and all I wanted to do was tear up what I was writing and go back to doing what it was that I had always done – fucking the needle, turning off the screaming in my head – it was those books which pointed towards a direction out. And I’ve been moving steadily outwards, ever since.