Drug Lit: William S. Burroughs’ Junky and Other Mind-Altering Reads

Drug Lit: William S. Burroughs’ Junky and Other Mind-Altering Reads


When I took a creative writing class in college, the teacher enforced just three rules: Show up to class, do the reading, and don’t write stories about being on drugs. The fear was that students would turn in stories riddled with run-on sentences and subject-verb disagreements and claim they were trying to approximate, stylistically, the experience of being high. In the context of an undergraduate creative writing course, this was probably a smart move. But, out in the real world of writing, famous authors such as Denis Johnson, Hunter S. Thompson, and  William S. Burroughs have all turned to mind-altering substances for inspiration. Here, we round up the books that best capture the delight, danger, and very often destruction that comes with doing drugs.

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    1. Junky

    Drugs found their way into more than one of William S. Burroughs’ novels, just as they certainly found their way into his personal life. While Naked Lunch is the probably most famous of his works to deal heavily in themes of drug use, his debut novel Junky offers a more precise account of the horrors, and odd elations, of drug addiction. The novel, which The Daily Beast calls “a field guide to the American underworld,” follows protagonist Bill as he hops between various speedy spots in New York, New Orleans, and other American cities in desperate pursuit of “junk”: opium and all its subsets, including heroin. First published in 1953, the novel stood at extreme odds with the booming spirit of postwar America, focusing instead on the nation’s strange and intoxicating underbelly.

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    2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

    This autobiographical novel by Hunter S. Thompson follows two men, Raoul Duke and his lawyer, Mr. Gonzo, as they journey to Las Vegas for a debauched weekend filled with drugs, booze, pontifications about the failure of the 1960s countercultural movement, and more drugs. A classic of both “drug lit” and gonzo journalism, it was adapted into 1998 filmstarring Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp.

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    3. Infinite Jest

    A novelist doesn’t need to have firsthand experience of his subject matter to write convincingly about it, but the harrowing passages describing drug addiction and withdrawal in Infinite Jest speak to the author’s well-documented struggle with substance abuse. The infamously long and taxing book features a wide cast of characters, many of whom are current or former drug addicts in treatment at a rehab center. The achievement ofInfinite Jest isn’t so much that it translates drug addiction for the non-initiated lay reader. Rather, it plumbs—fearlessly and exhaustively—the psychological and even philosophical factors that drive people to do drugs, and that make it so difficult for addicts to kick the habit.

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    4. Jesus’ Son

    This haunting, unforgettable collection of related stories about working-class heroin addicts takes its title from the Lou Reed song “Heroin,” about the alluring effects of the drug: When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son.

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    5. Budding Prospects

    If you couldn’t tell from the ha-ha title, T.C. Boyle’s novel tells the story of three marijuana sharecroppers who encounter seemingly any number of hurdles in their effort to reap cash from cannabis.

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    6. Trainspotting

    Probably the cultiest book on this list, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 debut novelabout heroin addicts living in squalor in Edinburgh, Scotland has been credited with helping to create the “voice of punk.” In 1996, it was adapted into a film by Danny Boyle that became a cult favorite in its own right.

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    7. Bright Lights, Big City

    McInerney’s novel follows the movements of an embittered fact-checker who, in the wake of a breakup, becomes caught up in the materialistic, cocaine-addled New York City yuppie nightlife scene. If the novel sounds similar to the work of Bret Easton Ellis, that’s because it is: Both Ellis and McInerney were part of a literary troupe known as the “Brat Pack,” whose works dealt with the emptiness and hedonism of the American upper class. For more entries in the drug lit genre, check out Ellis’ novels Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho.

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    8. Invisible Man

    In one of the most famous scenes in Ralph Ellison’s classic, the protagonist has a transcendant experience while smoking weed and listening to Louis Armstrong. As The Daily Beast puts it: “He comes to a Nietzschean conclusion: Great music and chemical intoxicants belong to the same existential class, implements of the Dionysian.” Anyone traversing vast philosphical territories under the influence of ganja can look to Ellison—and perhaps no one else—for understanding.


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