Queer by William S. Burroughs has been shelved on my bookcase for the best part of five years. I bought it along with other famed Beat Generation pieces: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Burroughs most famed novels, Junky and Naked Lunch. I read On the Road first; an arduous, albeit profoundly rewarding read. Due to On the Road’s unique style, I approach the Beat movement with trepidation. This time I opted for a decidedly slimmer volume: Queer.
A love story?
Written by Burroughs in 1952, and first published in 1985, Queer is the story of William Lee and his attempt to woo Eugene Allerton. The blurb describes Queer as ‘love story’, but describing it as a love story doesn’t quite sit right with me. Instead, it is a story about unrequited love: intense sexual desire and extreme desperation for human contact. Lee’s love interest, Allerton, is uninterested in his relentless advances. Eventually, he expresses curiosity in homosexuality, and succumbs to a physical relationship with Lee, but it becomes increasingly clear that they have differing agendas.
A feeling of deep tenderness flowed out from Lees body at the warm contact. He snuggled closer and stroked Allerton’s shoulder gently. Allerton moved irritably. pushing Lee’s arm away.
Although aware of, and extremely hurt by, Allerton’s disinterest, Lee continues to chase after him. Lee requires an audience and contact: he talks a lot (Allerton, on the other hand, has little to say), he tells fantastical stories and puts on over the top routines in an effort to attract Allerton’s attention.
Despite his perverse mind, dull stories, and cringe-worthy antics, I felt a strange resonance with Lee’s character. Unrequited love, and the human desire for closeness and affection is something that we can all relate to. Is it a love story? Perhaps. A love story of the most vulnerable, naked and honest kind.
Burroughs’ 1985 introduction to the text makes the story all the more moving. Queer was written almost 35 years prior to Burroughs’ introduction, eight months after he had accidentally shot and killed his wife. Burroughs’ reflects:
I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it… the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
Burroughs’ consequent torment pervades Queer.
He felt the tearing ache of limitless desire – Lee, Queer
Beautifully written and surprisingly moving with a relatively straightforward, lateral narrative, Queer was not as challenging a read as I expected. Set in Mexico City, the reader is introduced to a host of quirky, bar lingering characters before being whisked off to Panama then Ecuador, where Lee takes Allerton on a fruitless quest for the drug, Yage. For me, the story lost direction when they travelled to South America, and in the end nothing is resolved, emphasising Lee’s bleak, never-ending quest for human contact.
- See what rating I gave Queer on Goodreads.