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The Stray Bullet

The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 176
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    The Stray Bullet
    Book Description:

    William S. Burroughs arrived in Mexico City in 1949, having slipped out of New Orleans while awaiting trial on drug and weapons charges that would almost certainly have resulted in a lengthy prison sentence. Still uncertain about being a writer, he had left behind a series of failed business ventures-including a scheme to grow marijuana in Texas and sell it in New York-and an already long history of drug use and arrests. He would remain in Mexico for three years, a period that culminated in the defining incident of his life: Burroughs shot his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, while playing William Tell with a loaded pistol. (He would be tried and convicted of murder in absentia after fleeing Mexico.)

    First published in 1995 in Mexico, where it received the Malcolm Lowry literary essay award,The Stray Bulletis an imaginative and riveting account of Burroughs's formative experiences in Mexico, his fascination with Mexico City's demimonde, his acquaintances and friendships there, and his contradictory attitudes toward the country and its culture. Mexico, Jorge García-Robles makes clear, was the place in which Burroughs embarked on his "fatal vocation as a writer."

    Through meticulous research and interviews with those who knew Burroughs and his circle in Mexico City, García-Robles brilliantly portrays a time in Burroughs's life that has been overshadowed by the tragedy of Joan Vollmer's death. He re-creates the bohemian Roma neighborhood where Burroughs resided with Joan and their children, the streets of postwar Mexico City that Burroughs explored, and such infamous figures as Lola la Chata, queen of the city's drug trade. This compelling book also offers a contribution by Burroughs himself-an evocative sketch of his shady Mexican attorney, Bernabé Jurado.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4003-8
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-X)
    (pp. XI-XVI)
    J. G.-R.

      (pp. 3-6)

      Late 1943. World War II. New York. 15 degrees. The atomic bomb looms over the world. William Seward Burroughs moves invisibly through the Manhattan streets. He wears a Chesterfield coat. A bowler hat. A company of demons hover around him. Just back from Chicago, Burroughs has a friend in New York: Lucien Carr, a young Columbia student. One day Lucien was listening to Brahms’s Trio No. 1 when he heard a slight knocking at the door. He turned the doorknob, opened the door, and saw a flustered young Jew of seventeen, with curly black hair and ridiculously thick glasses. What...

      (pp. 7-9)

      In 1945 Joan and Edie moved to an apartment at 419 West 115th Street. Edie worked as a cigarette girl at the Zanzibar nightclub. Kerouac, who had left her not long before, went back to live with them. Allen Ginsberg and Hal Chase (an anthropologist from Denver who at age sixteen had written an imaginary dialogue between Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky) also went to live on 115th Street. It was at that time that Joan Vollmer and William S. Burroughs had their first meeting, an encounter that was very carefully planned by Kerouac and Ginsberg, who rightly intuited they’d be compatible....

      (pp. 9-13)

      The tone of irreverence and scorn at the apartment on 115th Street incubated like a virus, a war against multiplication tables, a crusade against comfort and complacency. It was a gathering place for a bunch of delirious souls, violent individuals, junkies, poets, killers, thieves, wastrels, time wasters, gluttons for life itself. Three of them—as written by the finger of god—were bathed in a providential aura: visionaries, emissaries from an unofficial heaven, genuine apostles of the twentieth century who will no doubt be canonized one of these millennia.

      One day when everyone was high on bennies, Paul Adams, Joan’s...

      (pp. 13-15)

      In New York the fellowship disbanded: Ginsberg moved, Hal Chase got fed up and left the apartment, Edie Parker moved back in with her parents, Kerouac got lost somewhere, and Joan remained alone with Julie, popping bennies in earnest. For a time Huncke joined her. Since he was gay, nothing went on between them. But Huncke introduced her to a blond, well-built, handsome man, Whitey, with whom she had a comforting affair. Huncke was now living off his various thefts, which he kept hidden in the apartment 13 at 115th Street. One day the police knocked on the door and...

      (pp. 16-17)

      Meanwhile, in New York, Ginsberg and Kerouac witnessed the incarnation of the American Dionysus: Neal Cassady, who by age eighteen had been in prison ten times in Denver for auto theft. Convulsive self-taught reader, indefatigable cocksman, outrageous traveler, he swallowed women whole—men too. Back then he had a fling with Ginsberg but gave him up. Ginsberg went to the psychiatrist. Burroughs told him to try the Reichians. Kerouac was so fascinated by Neal that he made him the main character in two novels. Neal was everything Jack wanted to be but couldn’t: his unattainable alter ego. Neal was amoral,...

      (pp. 18-19)

      Burroughs began to consume paregoric (an opium derivative) in excess, Joan and Huncke two tubes of Benzedrine daily. Neither Burroughs nor Huncke liked Neal. But the marijuana harvest was in and it had to be taken to New York. What better driver than Neal Cassady! thought Burroughs. Joan and the kids went up by train beforehand, Huncke, Burroughs, and Neal in a jeep stuffed to the gills with marijuana. They covered three thousand miles in three days of nonstop driving. Neal drove most of the time. When they got to New York, they met up with Joan at Bellevue. She’d...

      (pp. 19-24)

      Joan and Bill left Texas and chose a place where it was easier to score drugs: New Orleans. Burroughs bought a house in Algiers, across the Mississippi. Once there, he went back to planning businesses with Kells Elvins. They would harvest vegetables and cotton in Pharr, Texas: carrots, lettuce, peas. They hired Mexican braceros, paying them two bucks per twelve-hour day. The police shot at the Mexicans, who fled the work. In his letters, Burroughs spoke of business, described projects, tallied expenses and earnings. At night he’d go to New Orleans to score heroin, shooting up at the rate of...


      (pp. 27-30)

      Mexico City, mid-twentieth century. Maaamboooo …ah uh!Cabarets everywhere, brothels on every corner, a vibrant nightlife. Big on the scene was Pérez Prado, the pint-sized Cuban inventor of the mambo, with a face like a seal’s and a Luciferesque beard, deported for playing the Mexican national anthem in mambo style. Never mind: nothing could stop the fiesta. Cha cha cha …ah uh!It was madness. Aaron Copland visits the Salón México and is enchanted by the dance hall; the muses descend and he composes one of his greatest symphonic works. Miguel Alemán allowed everything Hell, we could go...

      (pp. 30-32)

      Mexico, mid-twentieth century. President Miguel Alemán. The first postrevolutionary president that wasn’t a military man. Young, smiley, a thief, corrupt as a dung beetle, native of Veracruz, lawyer. He loved the gringos and wanted to modernize poor little Mexico.Ah uh!He thought of himself as a miracle worker. He attempted and succeeded to build the horrendous Miguel Alemán Viaduct in Mexico City; the grotesque Miguel Alemán apartment complex along Calle Félix Cuevas; the shocking Juárez apartment complex in the Roma district, so poorly built that it collapsed in the earth-quake of 1985; the horrid La Raza hospital. He constructed...

      (pp. 33-41)

      More than arriving in Mexico, William Seward Burroughs II was running from the USA. He no longer wanted to live in his homeland (his place of birth anyway). Unlike D. H. Lawrence, he wasn’t interested in seeking Quetzalcóatl amid the pre-Hispanic ashes or revisiting the myths of the culture of the Aztec sun in hefty, implausible novels. Nor like Antonin Artaud did he come to rediscover the magic of ancient Mexico by trekking to the Sierra Tarahumara to ritually ingest peyote and go stark-raving mad. Nor like Graham Greene was he filing reports on Mexico or venting his hatred of...

      (pp. 42-44)

      During his first months in Mexico, Burroughs was quite content. He believed in his plan, he read and recommended Wilhelm Reich, he took no drugs. His relationship with Joan and the kids was calm. He got to know the group of frivolous Americans residing in Mexico City. He didn’t work; he was receiving two hundred dollars a month from his family and seventy-five more from the GI Bill (a grant that the U.S. government gave veterans to study in foreign countries). Burroughs was in fact a World War II veteran. In 1942, he enlisted in the infantry to defend his...

      (pp. 44-47)

      Fifty years ago, I was phoning from the lobby of the Hotel Reforma in Mexico D.F. The phone booths are open at the back and halfway of each side. I am phoning the U.S. embassy. “Could you give me the best English-speaking lawyer who handles criminal cases? Hold.”

      Someone taps me on the shoulder. “I couldn’t help overhearing.” It was a well-dressed Italian oozing connections.

      “The man you want to see is Jurado. What’s your trouble? Forgery? Embezzlement?” (I guess I looked like a bank clerk.)

      “No, narcotics.” Yeah, enough for two shots and enough for five years on a...

      (pp. 47-50)

      Bernabé Jurado. The devil’s advocate, the ultimate scam artist, cynical king of the bribe, Mexican lawyer in extremis, defender of thugs and the defenseless. He was born in Durango in 1910. His father was owner of the hacienda of Canutillo. In 1915, Pancho Villa appropriated the hacienda, took his father prisoner, and shot him in front of his family. Before the man was riddled with bullets, the young Bernabé ran to Villa, knelt before him, and wrapped his arms around the rebel’s legs, imploring: “Don’t kill my father!” The merciless Villa grabbed the boy and kicked him out of the...

      (pp. 50-55)

      At the start of 1950, Burroughs turned thirty-six: on the fifth of February, anniversary of the implementation of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, of which Mexicans remain curiously proud. Burroughs wrote Ginsberg long and didactic letters reproaching him for wanting to “overcome” his homosexuality, for setting up a false dichotomy between normal life and visionary life. He lectured Ginsberg on ethics, sexology, and politics, bashed liberalism and communism, defended cooperativism, insisted that Allen be true to himself, criticized him for reflexively following the line of others. He believed in telepathy and life after death. The tone of his lessons was...

      (pp. 55-59)

      And while he was writingJunky, he returned to drugs. One day he was in the reception area of Jurado’s office when he saw a short, slovenly man of around fifty. He knew straightaway that he was a junkie—addicts could easily sniff out one another. Dave Tesorero, Old Dave, was his name, Ike inJunky, a twenty-five-year addict, Chicano, seller of supposedly silver jewelry. Skilled in the art of scoring drugs, he had a Mexican girlfriend who was also an addict: Esperanza Villanueva, about whom Kerouac would produce a novel in 1956,Tristessa. That day they dined together on...

      (pp. 59-66)

      A brief look at the life of a heroine of the Mexican underground.

      Lola la Chata. María Dolores Estevez Zulueta. That tremendous, obese, big mama, 4½ feet tall, 120 kilos. Coatlicue (she of the serpent skirt) of Mexican drug culture, empress of the contraband trade through the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, the grande dame of the narcos, queen bee of the black market, owner of the largest underground drug monopoly in Latin America. She was variously accused of trading in illegal substances, poisoning innocent bodies, perverting the human race, and promoting perdition. She died on September 4, 1959, and...

      (pp. 66-69)

      In mid-1950, Burroughs and family moved to No. 37 Cerrada de Medellín (now Calle José Alvarado), behind the Sears Roebuck in the Roma district. Burroughs, hooked on drugs, only rarely went to Mexico City College, whose students struck him as a pack of bores. Joan continued to down tequila, limped and had to use a cane, much weakened and at the same time fed up with her husband’s addiction. At times, she became intolerant, and once, while Bill was setting up a shot of morphine, Joan grabbed the spoon in which the substance floated, ready to be dispensed into the...

      (pp. 69-71)

      In the summer of 1950, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady crossed the border from Laredo, Texas, to Laredo, Tamaulipas. Their intense, speedy, slam-bang, epic journeys had until then been limited to gringo territory. Mexico was a revelation to them.

      “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic,” wrote Kerouac at the end ofOn the Road, astonished at how cheap life was across the border and how easy it was to get girls, witnessing the naturalness and calmness of the Mexicans, the essential, almost messianic nature...

      (pp. 71-75)

      Burroughs continued to shoot up while attempting to kick the habit. He tried to obtain Mexican citizenship (though Jurado couldn’t swing it) so he could plant crops and be self-sufficient, something he was unable to do in the USA. Meanwhile, his eyes were opening to the Kafkaesque nature of the Mexican institutions charged with processing documents … “I am still in process of getting my citizenship papers. The immigration dept is like Kafka. Fortunately I have retained a competent advocate skilled in the interstices of bureaucratic procedures” (ibid., 69). He continued to detest the United States, and worked onJunky...

      (pp. 75-77)

      While television was making its debut in Mexico in late 1950 and the Pan-American Highway opened, while the flow of gringo tourism to Mexico increased enormously and thousands of Mexican braceros were crossing their northern border in search of work—“They keep going in as masters and departing as slaves,” wrote Salvador Novo—Burroughs continued consuming drugs, writingJunky, frequenting the bars of the Roma district, and experiencing disappointment toward his onetime Mexican paradise. In fact, Burroughs was starting to hate lovely and beloved Mexico. He was noticing that behind the goodwill, the respectfulness, good cheer, warmth, and tolerance crouched...

      (pp. 78-80)

      By December 1950, Burroughs had completed a draft ofJunky. He immediately sent it over to Lucien Carr, who was working as an editor in New York at the time, and asked him for a thousand-dollar advance. Burroughs needed the money: he had sold his land in Texas but hadn’t been paid the full amount and what he had wasn’t enough to carry out his plan to leave Mexico and go live in another country. Had he writtenJunkymainly for the economic benefit? Maybe not, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested. Throughout his stay in Mexico, he had...

      (pp. 80-84)

      Immediately after Burroughs took a break from shooting opiates, he started drinking heavily. He would go to a bar that stood at the base of an apartment building at 122 Calle Monterrey, near the corner of Chihuahua, in the Roma district, called the Bounty (Ship Ahoy inQueer). The building was managed by a fortyish, unmarried, short, and dark mestiza: Juanita Peñaloza, a seasoned businesswoman who sublet furnished apartments. Most of the residents were gringos studying at Mexico City College, or said they were, or had jobs in Mexico City. Others were Mexican students who studied art (at La Esmeralda...

      (pp. 85-87)

      Substituting alcohol for drugs, Burroughs habitually drank to excess. One evening while drinking at another Roma neighborhood bar—possibly the Ku Ku, which was at the corner of Coahuila and Insurgentes and is mentioned in several of Burroughs’s and Kerouac’s novels—a cop appeared and Burroughs struck up a conversation with him. Suddenly, irked by the man in uniform, Burroughs lost his head, took out a pistol (he never went unarmed while in Mexico City), and pushed it into the policeman’s stomach. From behind the bar, the bartender grabbed the arm of the impetuous American, took away his pistol, and...

      (pp. 88-93)

      Although he’d stopped shooting heroin and reduced his alcohol intake to three martinis a day, Burroughs smoked opium once a week. He considered the substance harmless. He continued to attend Mexico City College after a fashion, more for the money he got than for any true interest in his studies. He was also revising the manuscript ofJunky, clearing it of any theoretical references in which he quoted Wilhelm Reich. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, he argued over the aims of the book:

      Now what in the name of God do you mean by saying the book is a...

      (pp. 94-97)

      Now all that Burroughs had left to hope for in Mexico was the money he was owed for his lands in Texas. In May 1951 he wrote to Kerouac: “I don’t know how much longer I will be around Mexico City. I am still waiting on my $ from Texas. When I do get that money I will certainly be taking off for points south” (ibid., 93).

      While he awaited the moment to leave Mexico, Burroughs continued to go to the Bounty on a regular basis. He met a few Americans there, none of whom had the slightest artistic or...

      (pp. 97-100)

      Before Burroughs left for South America with Marker, the family moved near to where they had lived for more than a year. Their new home, apartment 8 at 210 Calle Orizaba, was on a residential lane in the Roma district. Still a series of uninhabited plains at the end of the nineteenth century, Roma started filling up with French-style mansions during the Porfirio Díaz regime, built for the aristocracy of the period. Even after the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Roma continued to accommodate the emerging elite, first under Venustiano Carranza, then Álvaro Obregón, who built his own residence on Jalisco Street...

      (pp. 100-105)

      Shortly before leaving for South America with Marker, Bill and Joan had a round of the telepathic game they used to play at home. Joan got a piece of paper and wrote down a message while silently transmitting it to Bill: she herself with clouds of smoke hovering around her head and the wordtroglodytecaptioning the image.

      Spending time with Marker was not Burroughs’s only reason for going to South America. He was also in search of two things: a place where he could achieve what he’d been unable to in Mexico; andyagé, the psychoactive Amazonian plant that...

      (pp. 105-108)

      While Burroughs and Marker were roaming around South America and penetrating the lush jungles of the Amazon basin, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr were on their way from New York to Mexico City in a beat-up old Chevrolet to visit Joan. In mid-August they knocked at the door of apartment 8, at 210 Orizaba. Joan was alone at home with seven-year-old Julie and Billy, who’d just turned four.

      After several years of not seeing Joan, Ginsberg saw that she had deteriorated, withered. “She’ll be giving you competition soon,” he told her upon noticing the girl’s blossoming beauty. “Oh, I’m out...

      (pp. 109-113)

      At noon on Thursday, September 6, 1951, William S. Burroughs heard the whistle of the roving knife sharpener outside his house. As he’d purchased a vintage Scout knife with metal handle in Ecuador, he decided to visit the sharpener. Almost thirty-five years later, in the introduction toQueer, Burroughs recalled:

      The knife-sharpener had a little whistle and a fixed route, and as I walked down the street towards his cart a feeling of loss and sadness that had weighed on me all day so I could hardly breathe intensified to such an extent that I found tears streaming down my...

      (pp. 114-122)

      When John Healy showed up at this apartment, he was so nervous that, according to press reports, he said that Joan had arrived at the flat twenty minutes before Bill, to visit John Herrman (a mutual American friend who lived in Guadalajara but was at that time in Mexico City). In fact, Herrman was quite a ways from the scene of the incidents. Healy laughed uneasily each time the police asked him something, saying he didn’t understand a word of Spanish. Actually, he was scared to death. That same day, Herrman denied what Healy had said. These statements were presented...

      (pp. 122-128)

      Over the course of his life, Burroughs interpreted Joan’s death in different ways. Similarly, his public statements on the matter have sometimes varied. For quite some time he referred to it as a simple accident, as an undesirable or unfortunate incident, and avoided speaking much about it, downplaying it or remaining completely mum. In his books where Mexico plays a key role—JunkyandQueer—he never utters a word about it. Until 1985, he referred to Joan’s death only in general terms, reiterating the deceitful statement that Bernabé Jurado had instructed him to tell the Mexican courts, denying anything...

      (pp. 128-131)

      After Burroughs got out of jail, he was obliged to stay in Mexico City until the definitive judgment was made on the charges against him. Burroughs was legally classified as a “pernicious foreigner,” and had to sign his name every Monday for his conditional freedom. He went back to living at 210 Orizaba, but this time, so as not to stir up memories, he moved to apartment 5 (previously he had lived with his family in number 8). He was now alone, without Joan, without the kids. He held the illusory belief that the trial would take place quite soon,...

    • QUEER
      (pp. 131-133)

      In late March 1952, Burroughs was working nonstop on what he was calling at the time the second part ofJunky, laterQueer. Although Burroughs conceived of this book as a complement to the first, the differences between the two are obvious and informed—as he would recognize thirty-five years later—by Joan’s death.Junky, written in the first person, is a candid account of Burroughs’s experience with drugs. Delivered in a cold, direct style, it was free of any drama or sense of personal tragedy.Queer, written in the third person, relates one segment of Burroughs’s homosexual experiences in...

      (pp. 133-135)

      It wasn’t all drama for Burroughs. While he was awaiting the final verdict of the Mexican judges, writing and shooting up, supposedly to get his mind off Marker, once in a while he also had a drink at the Bounty or the Ku Ku and saw his gringo pals, slept with Angelo, or took in a bullfight or cockfight, thrilled by the violence in them: “Been seeing a lot of bullfights. Good kicks. Going to a cockfight this evening. I like my spectacles brutal, bloody and degrading” (Harris,The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 109).

      Unlike Kerouac or D. H....

      (pp. 135-140)

      One morning in April 1952, Neal Cassady was driving his ’50 Chevy down the highway from San Francisco to Arizona. In the rear, ensconced as best as they were able on a seatless floor, were his wife Carolyn and their two kids; in the front, at his side, sat Jack Kerouac. The Cassadys were giving the author ofOn the Roada ride to Nogales. The relationship between the two legendary friends was at an ebb; they’d gotten tired of each other. So Jack decided to grab his backpack, leave Neal’s house, cross the border, and travel by bus to...

      (pp. 140-143)

      No sooner had Kerouac left than another visitor arrived: Bill Garver, Burroughs’s old New York junkie partner, the overcoat thief, who wanted to move in with him. When Burroughs went to the airport to get him, Garver’s pants were stained with blood, as he’d used a safety pin to shoot up during the flight. Garver, who had inherited a certain sum of money, had the idea of residing in Mexico. He was tall and square, with his graying hair combed back, and he could not live without stealing or shooting up. Although quiet and composed, he was prone to abrupt,...

      (pp. 143-146)

      Apart from sharing his home with his two visitors, Burroughs was writing regularly in a disciplined fashion, alternately shooting up and trying to kick, anxiously and resignedly awaiting the definitive trial in his case so he could leave Mexico and head for South America, and carrying on an intense correspondence with his literary agent and confidant Allen Ginsberg, in which the issue of Joan was never once broached, even superficially. Burroughs simply didn’t want to talk about the death of his wife. In just one instance was he unable to resist the urge to write to his friend, “How I...

      (pp. 147-151)

      In Florida, Burroughs spent a few weeks with Billy. But, as he held on to his plans to go to South America, he said goodbye to his son in mid-January, leaving Billy with Mortimer and Laura again, and traveled to Panama. The ambiguity he now felt toward Mexico was apparent in a letter he wrote to Ginsberg from Florida on December 23, 1952:

      My income has survived the treachery and fall of Jurado. I lost only the bond money. I should never have expected to recover one peso of the money knowing the Mexicans as I do. I have a...

      (pp. 151-154)

      Burroughs came to Mexico more to escape the United States than to visit its southern neighbor. Mexico struck him as grotesque, sordid, and malodorous, but he liked it. In the three years that he lived in Mexico City, his feelings toward the Mexicans were varied and contradictory. He would go from admiration and idealization of their customs and ways of life to hatred and harsh condemnation of the same things. That said, he never stopped liking Mexico. Something about it appealed to him. Perhaps it was that odd cultural intermingling, an ill-matched combination of tradition and modern spirit that makes...

    (pp. 155-156)
  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 157-164)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 165-166)