“The Face on the Fork: A William Burroughs Triptych” – new booklet by Iain Sinclair

An extract from the booklet that will be published later this month by Kevin Ring’s Beat Scene Press. It’s called ‘The Face on the Fork: A William Burroughs Triptych.’

I have tried to present a refracted portrait of Burroughs through my dealings with him over a forty year period. The portrait comes in three panels.

First, Dublin 1962: establishing contact, receiving a short text from Burroughs.

Next, 1967: my unpublished script for a film with Burroughs that was never made.

Finally, a visit to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1995.

The book is available from Beat Scene Press, 27 Court Leet, Binley Woods, Coventry, England CV3 2JQ.


Price: £6.95 in UK, £7.95 overseas. Edition of 125 copies, numbered and signed.

Cheques payable to M.Ring on by Paypal.



Out on the road, through farm country with no signs, neat houses at the end of long tracks, I thought of In Cold Blood. But this was the wrong part of Kansas and we had a date with the wizard. Paul, my companion, didn’t drive. He operated the recording machinery and produced the kind of sound documentaries the BBC no longer commission. After this shot, he would step aside. It was rumoured that he was working on the definitive Croydon novel. If that epic is still in progress, Paul, your moment, post-riots, might well have arrived.

I didn’t know much about Lawrence, the small university town where Burroughs had settled with his companion and minder, Jim McCrary. Kathy Acker told a few colourful stories about riding around town in a customised ambulance, with Burroughs, acting as bait for college boys. We had an address and a time, and we were early. Stopping at a drive-in convenience store to find a street map, I was awed by the longest, meatiest turd I’ve ever seen, floating like a skinless brown python in the crusted lavatory bowl. Much Kansas beef was tinned on the shelves. Alongside the usual gun magazines, sweet drinks and root beer.

Paused across the street from the boxcar-red weatherboard house, in our dark-windowed car, I pictured us as the two characters from Don Siegel’s film of The Killers, the silver-suited hitmen. And that became the motif of my own story, when I came to report this episode. We were agents of fate, not really implicated in the complex Burroughs biography; hirelings in town for an afternoon, to do a job. Nail the mark on tape. Get the shot.

But Burroughs was too canny, too long in the game. Pale winter sunlight across the table where he sat, waiting for the hour when he would take his first drink. Nothing to be said that had not been said a thousand times before. He talked property prices. He reminisced about meeting Samuel Beckett in Berlin. Beckett stared at the wall. He had nothing to offer, beyond acknowledging that, yes, William Burroughs was indeed a writer.

The voice never rises above a gravel whisper. I have a letter to deliver from Gregory Corso. Burroughs slashes it open with a ceramic knife. ‘Best there is. Cost me $100.’ He reads the message from New York. ‘Humph’, he snorts.

We get the tour, the paintings, the books, mostly science fiction, like unopened gifts on the shelf. Burroughs doesn’t read, he re-reads: Hemingway (‘good on death’), Conrad. A huge cat is sleeping on the master’s sun-dappled bed.

The gaunt old man pokes his cane into the goldfish pond. The orgone accumulator looks like an outdoor privy. We pose for the ritual shot. These visits are about fleshing out the album. In a few years, the writer will fade from the photograph. Strange men standing around an absence on a patch of Kansas grass. ‘One night,’ Burroughs said, ‘a bunch of drunk Indians came over the fence.’

Back inside, books inscribed, drinks poured, Burroughs comes to the revelation. He doesn’t write anymore, he transcribes dreams, a transit lounge to the next stage of existence. He paints, shoots cans. He collects his methadone prescription. A Native American sweat lodge ceremony conjured up, and exorcised, the spirit that had oppressed him for so many years; a spirit in the form of a winged Vietnam War helmet. A spirit representing the ugliness of American materialism and war guilt. A curse laid down at the moment when he shot and killed Joan Volmer in Mexico City. A curse that could only be ameliorated by dedicating his life to writing, taking the dictation of the old ones.

Word falling, image falling. Now those dues were paid. The way was clear to the western lands, that eternity of cinema without horizon, space that never ends. Biography plays back as fiction. It is written. The virus is in the order of words on the page. The old writer lived in a boxcar by the river. 1987. The Western Lands published by Viking Penguin. 1987: Burroughs begins painting, rents a studio in a barbed-wire factory building on Kaw riverfront.

Forty years ago the writer had published a novel which had made a stir… Gradually, as he wrote, a disgust for his words accumulated until it choked him… An old man in a rented house with his cat… How long does it take a man to learn that he does not, cannot want what he “wants”… In Tangier the Parade Bar is closed. Shadows are falling on the Mountain… The last words come from Conrad, ‘I live by my sword’. And from Eliot. ‘Hurry up, please. It’s time.’



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