Naked Lunch and Chicago
The Windy City where all wordwork lifechange potentials are spread out in a vast unexplored market…
References to Chicago appear through Naked Lunch from start to finish like lettering through a stick of Blackpool rock. (Note: Blackpool is an English seaside town that manufactures sticks of hard candy with the city’s name running right through the center of them.) The first occurs right at the beginning of the book with the strange tale of the “possessed” “shake man” the Vigilante. This story (which Burroughs would quirkily recycle for “The Coming of the Purple Better One,” his Esquire piece about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago) is telling, over-the top, funny and horrible at the same time. The narrator recounts how he was supposedly “working the fags in Lincoln Park” as a shake man (i.e. an extortionist who impersonates a law enforcement officer). The Vigilante goes crazy and hangs three homosexuals (the first but hardly the last reference to hangings in Naked Lunch) before being arrested. The Vigilante wouldn’t have to go far to bury his victims. Lincoln Park started its existence in 1843 as a city cemetery. Eventually all but one of the graves were moved and in 1864 it was converted into a park.
The Vigilante episode is an equal mix of con, trauma, and self-loathing from the narrator. The idea of a shake man targeting homosexuals must have been abhorrent to Burroughs, who was still trying to come to terms with his own sexuality, and yet he literally makes himself into a Jack Black character. He puts himself in the text in a position of strength as victimizer instead of could-be victim, straight instead of gay, but is still outed anyway when the Vigilante “wigs” and shoots at him. It reads like a true story that Burroughs might well have heard from a real shake man during his time in Mrs. Murphy’s Chicago rooming house and underworld training ground.
I photographed one of the intersections mentioned in the Vigilante section of Naked Lunch, North and Halsted. (Another intersection mentioned in the “Outtakes” in Naked Lunch: The Restored Text, Dearborn and Halsted, does not actually exist). As you can see, the intersection, like the rooming house of Mrs. Murphy, has changed beyond all recognition since the days when Burroughs in his exterminator guise cruised Chicago inflicting his campaign of frightened scuttling pest genocide. And it may change even more, if the Borders bookstore here (which, yes, did have a Burroughs section and several copies of Naked Lunch) closes down due to falling sales. They are always rebuilding the city.
North and Halsted, Chicago
Burroughs casts a cold anthropological eye over the state of Illinois (and also Missouri) in general — “miasma of mound-building peoples, groveling worship of the Food Source, cruel and ugly festivals, dead-end horror of the Centipede God reaches from Moundville to the lunar deserts of Peru.” You don’t get the idea that this is the sort of thing the Illinois Bureau of Tourism would want to hear.
Fittingly, it was Chicago that would ultimately help launch Naked Lunch onto the unsuspecting public. In the spring and autumn 1958 issues of the University of Chicago literary magazine Chicago Review, student Irving Rosenthal published segments of the book. It was the autumn publication of “The Rube” that drew the eye and ire and fire of a Chicago gossip columnist and got the winter issue, which was to include more from Naked Lunch, suppressed by the university.
Rosenthal and five other student editors resigned in protest and started their own magazine to publish the verboten verbiage, Big Table. The U.S. Post Office in Chicago seized several hundred copies of the first printing of 10,000 for obscenity, and the ACLU brought a federal case (which they eventually won in 1960) against the Post Office. But in the meantime Maurice Girodias, of the legendary French visionary sexploitation publication house Olympia Press, got wind of the controversy and in two weeks threw together a complete Naked Lunch manuscript to capitalize on the court case controversy, finally publishing it in late July 1959, with the rest of it all being literally literary history.
(Text: Graham Rae. Dedicated to JG Ballard, 1930-2009. You can also read some “textras” from Graham Rae’s text at the forum at RealityStudio.)