William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

22
Burroughs' Western

David Glover

The coloured wilderness of the West is a place of vast silence.

-- Paul Coates

A ppropriately enough, William Burroughs first publicly mooted the idea of writing a western during a brief visit to his midwest hometown of St. Louis in 1965. "I've thought about this for years," he told an interviewer for the Paris Review, and had apparently accumulated "hundreds of pages of notes on the whole concept of the gunfighter" in the process.1 Yet it was to be a further nineteen years before The Place of Dead Roads ( 1984) appeared, finally bringing this project to completion.

Or does it? Certainly The Place of Dead Roads has been heralded as Burroughs' "long awaited western," and it is indeed "a sort of cowboy story."2 But it is also far from being the "straight western" of which Burroughs spoke in 1965. According to the author's own account this projected novel would have simply transposed the characters and concerns of Nova Express ( 1964) into a Texas or New Mexico setting, whilst subjecting them to a much stricter genre treatment than his previous use of SF. The few fragments to survive from this period seem to bear this out. In "The Coldspring News" we find Bradley Martin, Burroughs' all-purpose evil spirit ( "God of Arbitrary Power and Restraint, of Prison and Pressure") inserted into two stock western situations: the lone gunman riding into town, and the accusation of rustling leveled by one cattle rancher against another. These confrontational episodes are, however, curiously anticlimactic. In the second, for example, Martin's accuser is stared down by the arch-villain's "gray eyes. . .cold as metal glinting to a distant point," and merely turns away without speaking. Characters come up against each other, but inconclusively: nothing actually happens. It is as if Burroughs has slowed time down almost to a stop. In the first episode it is the silence of the frontier town, its setting and its inhabitants, which realizes this effect. The "twilight like heavy blue dust. . .falling from the mountains" when Martin rides into Blue Junction is echoed by the final moments of the rustling face-off in which "Martin just stood

____________________
David Glover, "Burroughs' Western," Over Here: An American Studies Journal 6.2 ( 1986): 14-23. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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