Probably the most notorious episode in the lives of the writers known collectively as The Beats was the death by misadventure of Joan Vollmer, the common-law wife of William S. Burroughs, as the two were doing their “William Tell act” during an extended drinking binge at a friend’s apartment in Mexico City on September 6, 1951. As Jorge Garcia Robles recounts in The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico, translated by Daniel C. Schechter (University of Minnesota Press), Vollmer and Burroughs had been drinking “Oso Negro gin with lemonade” when Vollmer “picked up a half-full glass—a small one—and placed it on her head. [Burroughs] aimed at the glass [with his Star .380 automatic pistol] and pulled the trigger.” Robles situates this rather sordid tale in its social and cultural context: the lives of relatively privileged expatriates in a country where the outcome of a trial could be influenced through the judicious application of money and political pressure. The book is grimly fascinating in a 1950s, “noirish” way—and I don’t think that the translator can be blamed for the cheap psychological theorizing or the occasional passages of execrable prose, of which I offer two examples: “Joan wanted to die and Bill served as her escort to the final precipice”; and this clunker: “At that very moment [when Burroughs pulled the trigger]—as he was to discover years later—an addiction to writing penetrated his body.”
Only the most dedicated fans of Beat literature are likely to know that Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg’s lover of more than forty years, had a small book of his own poetry published in 1978 by City Lights Books. That book, Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, is long out of print, but a new book by (and about) Orlovsky offers a unique perspective on the American literary scene from the mid-1950s until Orlovsky’s death in 2010. Peter Orlovsky: A Life in Words (Paradigm Publishers) is made up of excerpts from Orlovsky’s letters and journals, which offer a fascinating glimpse into bohemian life as lived “on the road” in Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Mexico, Paris, North Africa and India. These extracts are stitched together with transitional passages from the book’s editor, Bill Morgan. As Morgan puts it, Orlovsky was “the original ‘flower child’ in the Beat group.” Orlovsky lived most of his adult life in the shadow of Ginsberg, who had been the first to encourage him to write. Mental illness ran in the Orlovsky family: both of Peter’s brothers, Lafcadio and Julius, were institutionalized for long periods of time, and toward the end of Peter’s life a long-time drug habit eventually “took its toll on his body and mind, and he slipped into his own hell of addiction and mental illness.” He died on May 30, 2010.