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Authors: William S. Burroughs

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The Western Lands

BOOK: The Western Lands
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about the author



William S. Burroughs is the author of numerous works including
Naked Lunch
The Cat Inside
, the trilogy consisting of
Cities of the Red Night
The Place of Dead Roads
, and 
The Western Lands
, and
The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959
(edited by Oliver Harris). His newest work is
My Education: A Book of Dreams
. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

title page



Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books USA Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,

Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,

Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published in the United States of America by

Viking Penguin Inc. 1987

Published in Penguin Books 1988

7   9   10   8   6

Copyright © William S. Burroughs, 1987

All rights reserved

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint

"Several Voices Out of a Cloud™ from
The Blue Estuaries

by Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1923, 1929, 1930, 1931,

1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1949, 1951,

1952, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966,

1967, 1968 by Louise Bogan. Reprinted by permission

of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.


Burroughs, William S., 1914-

The western lands/William S. Burroughs,

p.   cm.

ISBN 014 00.9456 3

I. Title.

[PS3552.U75W47 1988]

813'.54 —dcl9    88-17455

Printed in the United States of America

Set in Bodoni Book

Designed by Ann Gold

Except in the United States of America, this

book is sold subject to the condition that it

shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,

re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated

without the publisher s prior consent in any form

of binding or cover other than that in which it

is published and without a similar condition

including this condition being imposed on the

subsequent purchaser.





1916 - 1986


The Western Lands
is the final volume of a trilogy written over the last thirteen years.
Cities of the Red Night 
was published in 1981, and
The Place of Dead Roads
in 1984.

The author wishes to acknowledge Norman Mailer and his
Ancient Evenings
, for inspiration; Daphne Shih, for lemur and prosimian material; Peter L. Wilson and Jay Friedheim, for research on Hassan i Sabbah; Dean Ripa, for the lore of snakes and centipedes; David Ohle, for his painstaking work in transcribing my typescript; Gerald Howard, for seeing the finished work from the first sketchy pile of manuscript, and for his patient faith; Dorian Hastings, for careful copyediting; Andrew Wylie, for his valuable assistance and encouragement, and his dedication; Richard Seaver, for having faithfully guided
Cities of the Red Night
The Place of Dead Roads
to publication; Brion Gysin, for introducing me to Hassan i Sabbah and teaching me how to see; and James Grauerholz, for assembling and editing this book, and the other two, and for all the years.





Chapter 01



The old writer lived in a boxcar by the river. This was fill land that had once been a dump heap, but it was not used anymore: five acres along the river which he had inherited from his father, who had been a wrecker and scrap metal dealer.

Forty years ago the writer had published a novel which had made a stir, and a few short stories and some poems. He still had the clippings, but they were yellow and brittle now and he never looked at them. If he had removed them from the cellophane covering in his scrapbook they would have shredded to dust.

After the first novel he started on a second, but he never finished it. Gradually, as he wrote, a disgust for his words accumulated until it choked him and he could no longer bear to look at his words on a piece of paper. It was like arsenic or lead, which slowly builds up in the body until a certain point is reached and then . . . he hummed the refrain of "Dead Man Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton. He had an old wind-up Victrola and sometimes he played the few records he had.

He lived on a small welfare check and he walked a mile to a grocery store once a week to buy lard and canned beans and tomatoes and vegetables and cheap whiskey. Every night he put out trotlines and often he would catch giant catfish and carp. He also used a trap, which was illegal, but no one bothered him about it.

Often in the morning he would lie in bed and watch grids of typewritten words in front of his eyes that moved and shifted as he tried to read the words, but he never could. He thought if he could just copy these words down, which were not his own words, he might be able to put together another book and then . . . yes, and then what?

Most of his time he sat on a little screened porch built onto the boxcar and looked out over the river. He had an old 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun, and sometimes he would shoot a quail or a pheasant. He also had a .38 snub-nosed revolver, which he kept under his pillow.

One morning, instead of the typewritten words, he saw handwritten words and tried to read them. Some of the words were on pieces of cardboard and some were on white typewriter paper, and they were all in his handwriting. Some of the notes were written on the inside bottom of a cardboard box about three inches by four inches. The sides of the box had been partially torn away. He looked carefully and made out one phrase: "the fate of others."

Another page had writing around the side and over the top, leaving a blank space three by seven inches on the right side of the page. The words were written over each other, and he could make out nothing.

From a piece of brown paper he read: "2001."

Then there was another white sheet with six or seven sentences on it, words crossed out, and he was able to read:

"well almost never"

He got up and wrote the words out on a sheet of paper. 2001 was the name of a movie about space travel and a computer called HAL that got out of control. He had the beginning of an idea for a ventriloquist's act with a computer instead of a dummy, but he was not able to finish it.

And the other phrase, "well almost never." He saw right away that it didn't mean "well almost never," that the words were not connected in sequence.

He got out his typewriter, which hadn't been used in many years. The case was covered with dust and mold and the lock was rusted. He set the typewriter on the table he used to eat from. It was just two-by-fours attached to the wall and a heavy piece of half-inch plywood that stretched between them and an old oak chair.

He put some paper in the machine and started to write.

   I can see a slope which looks like sand carved by wind but there is grass or some green plant growing on it. And I am running up the slope . . . a fence and the same green plants now on a flat meadow with a mound delineated here and there . . . he was almost there . . . almost over the fence . . . roads leading away . . . waiting. . . .

   Lying in bed I see handwritten notes and pages in front of my eyes. I keep trying to read them but I can only get a few words here and there. . . . Here is a little cardboard box with the sides torn half off and the writing on the inside bottom and I can read one phrase . . . "the fate of others" . . . and another on a piece of paper . . . "2001" . . . and on a page of white paper with crossouts and only about six sentences on the page . . . "well almost never" . . . and that's all. One page has writing all around the edges, on one side and the top. I can't read any of it.

The old novelists like Scott were always writing their way out of debt . . . laudable . . . a valuable attribute for a writer is tenacity. So William Seward Hall sets out to write his way out of death. Death, he reflects, is equivalent to a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy. One must be careful to avoid the crime of concealing assets . . . a precise inventory will often show that the assets are considerable and that bankruptcy is not justified. A writer must be very punctilious and scrupulous about his debts.

Hall once admonished an aspiring writer, "You will never be a good writer because you are an inveterate check dodger. I have never been out with you when you didn't try to dodge your share of the check. Writers can afford many flaws and faults, but not that one. There are no bargains on the writer's market. You have to pay the piper. If you are not willing to pay, seek another vocation." It was the end of that friendship. But the ex-friend did take his advice, probably without intending to do so. He applied his talents to publicity, where no one is ever expected to pay.

So cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.

BOOK: The Western Lands
12.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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