The Black Meat
“The shoe shine boy put on his hustling smile and looked up into the Sailor’s dead, cold, undersea eyes” (43). The Sailor was biographically based on Phil White, a fellow addict with whom Burroughs “worked the hole” (i.e. rode the subway cars to roll lushes) in mid-1940s New York. The Sailor in Naked Lunch is a queer, uncanny figure with his “black insect laughter” and the “phosphorescent intensity” with which he studies the nails on his hand. And this uncanny dimension works literally in Freud’s definition of the term (unheimlich meaning “unhomely”; the strange that is secretly familiar), because anyone who’s read Junky has already met the Sailor.
In Burroughs’ first novel he appears as Roy, and wears the same “glen plaid suit” as he does in Naked Lunch (44) — a suit that also turns up at the end of Queer, in the “Mexico City Return” epilogue; only here, it’s worn by the creepiest character in the Burroughs oeuvre, the Skip Tracer, who turns out to be yet another early version of the Sailor — among other shared peculiarities, they have the same shiny yellow teeth, a suit that gives off a stale musty odour, and the sinister habit of studying their finger nails. At the back of this recycled description made up from bits of vivid and vanishing detail, you sense not only a remembered scene from Burroughs’ past, but the shadowy trace of something left unspoken that truly haunted him — and left its own indelibly haunting mark in Naked Lunch.
The Sailor also has a literary provenance beyond his appearances in Burroughs’ other texts, and occupies the same twilight world of sinister smiles, seedy waiting rooms and bars, encounters on trains, undertones of evil and menace, as Joe Varland from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great ghost story, “A Short Trip Home” — as illustrated for Burroughs in Charles Gatewood’s marvellous photo-curio, Sidetripping (1975). But there’s one thing badly missing in this picture, and that’s the hat — not a nautical hat for our naval friend, of course, but the one worn by the Skip Tracer, low over his eyes “which gleamed in the hat’s shade. . .” (Queer 133).
Although Burroughs doesn’t specify the Sailor’s type of headgear here, in the “Coke Bugs” section — which, together with “The Exterminator Does a Good Job,” is integrally related to “The Black Meat” — he gives him a “grey felt hat and black overcoat” (166). Phil White might well have worn such a hat in real life over his “asymmetrical skull” (Junky 7), but there’s also a possible match between the Sailor’s sinister junky costume and the “black slouch hat” worn by Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, a fantastical figure modelled on Burroughs himself (and mostly written in Burroughs’ Mexico City apartment in 1952). Sax’s trademark wide-brimmed “slouch” hat almost certainly derived from that star of 1930s radio and magazine, much beloved by Kerouac, The Shadow (seen here played by Orson Welles).
Kerouac could lift hats from comic book pegs for Burroughs because Burroughs belonged to a generation (very much pre-Beat Generation) that always looked undressed without a hat. The hat doesn’t clinch it, but in a roundabout intertextual way there’s very definitely something of Burroughs himself in this strange and otherworldly creature. The shoe shine boy can smile his hustling smile, but he hasn’t a chance against The Sailor.
(Text: Oliver Harris)