Queer by William S. Burroughs
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
William S. Burroughs’s Queer is a story about American expatriates, living in Mexico during the 1960s. Most of the ex-pats are male, and most seem to be homosexual or to have homosexual “tendencies.” What is interesting about Queer is that it was one of Burroughs’s earlier works, but one of his last published. The reason for this is that the book is “overtly” homosexual. Upon reading, though, and particularly for one familiar with Burroughs’s work, it is quickly realized that this is one of Burroughs’s tamer novels. Yes, it addresses homosexuality head-on, as opposed to via the abstract imagery and language employed in his other books; still, when one compares this to, say, Naked Lunch or The Wild Boys, it almost seems bland. It surprises me, then, that Burroughs managed to get his other, more daring and dangerous works published, while this one sat shelved for decades.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
I was impressed with Burroughs’s characterization in Queer, particular with that of the main character, William Lee, and his love interest, Eugene Allerton. There are minor characters, too, who play important supporting roles, and all of these are written in a way so as to be distinguishable and individually important – this includes every character from the nameless taxi drivers to the bar tenders, to the “working-boy” locals and the “king” of the Mexican city’s American-Gay community. What Burroughs does so well is to allow you to empathize with a rather bizarre main character who is on an even stranger kind of journey (drug-induced romanticism). The reader sees William for what he is, all the while William is putting on a show for the people around him, trying to hide his pain and jealousy and, particularly, how much he wants to be wanted.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
As always, I adored the style of the book and Burroughs’s prose. He is a brilliant writer – it becomes impossible for me not to finish his books in one or two sittings, because the pages just turn and turn. Particular strengths in this book, I think, are the dialogue and the chapter breaks. The dialogue develops and flows naturally, so it is easy to imagine yourself in the room with these people, engaging in the conversation or simply overhearing it from the bar. It helps, too, that the description (characterization as well as setting) is so vivid and clear. The chapters are typically brief – they are much like individual scenes which progress William’s story – physically and temporally.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.
Reading Queer in retrospect, after reading his later works, is almost eerie. There is this nascent, fetus-like Burroughs element to the writing. The story subtly hints at some of Burroughs’s later terrors – McCarthyism and the Red Scare, invasion of privacy, social crucifixions, political over-reaching. There are small glimpses, through William Lee of these fears – perhaps this group is made of the early refugees, the one who can sense the change coming, aren’t quite sure what it is, but know they have to get out to stay free and safe. This book certainly forecasts Naked Lunch in many ways – and the brilliance of Burroughs is revealed further, knowing that decades before his sociopolitical rants against government brutality and regimentation, he had written one small little book that had already been projecting it all. Also, it was interesting to see a softer-side to Burroughs. This is the first of his books that I recall addressing the issue of “love.” William has some clear yearning and need for companionship and the story here is very much about him trying to find it – sort of finding it – losing it, and dealing with that loss. Incredibly touching.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Homosexuality, Drug Culture, Mexico, South America, 1960s American Politics
William S. Burroughs on Queer: “I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. –Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.”