Looking for Bill

Half a century ago, cult writer William S. Burroughs called Texas home. I wanted to know where—and why.

Rob Johnson and James Grauerholz stood in the ruins of an old Mexican bar one evening in May looking for William S. Burroughs. In its heyday, Joe’s Place was a dazzling Reynosa nightclub that featured showgirls in peekaboo outfits and white feather headdresses, roaring fireplaces beside murals of volcanoes, and an array of exotic animals—monkeys, peacocks, drinking bears—that roamed the bar untethered. Burroughs was, improbably, living just across the border in the South Texas town of Pharr during the late forties and is believed to have frequented Joe’s. A good friend of his was mauled to death there when he drunkenly decided to “pet the cats” (the lions, that is). Burroughs wrote a short story about the incident called “Tiger in the Valley”; though the manuscript is now lost, Johnson and Grauerholz hope to find it. “Kerouac called it ‘exquisite and macabre,’” Johnson says.The two scholars—Johnson is an English professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Grauerholz the executor of the Burroughs estate—are studying the Beat Generation icon’s years in Texas. Theirs is not an easy task. Though Burroughs is considered one of the most brilliant and daring American writers of the twentieth century, his time here is all but forgotten. He is best remembered for the more infamous chapters of his life: the accidental shooting of his wife in Mexico City during a game of William Tell; the obscenity trial over his novel Naked Lunch; the self-imposed exile that led him to wander from North America to South America, Europe, and Africa; the addictions that consumed him. Overlooked are his alternately hilarious and lyrical descriptions of Texas, which can be found in many of his major works, and his brief residency here, which was marked by the sort of outrageous behavior that would later make him a cult figure.

This spring I tagged along with Johnson and Grauerholz as they visited Burroughs’ South Texas haunts. Joe’s Place was our last stop, a cavernous building in the heart of the zona rosa that was in a state of disrepair and was being demolished for renovation. There was no roof, only an evening sky above; shattered tiles were strewn across the packed dirt where the dance floor had once been. The plaster walls, which were the color of burnt orange, stood intact. Reynosa historian César Humberto Isassi Cantú and a short, sprightly dancer named Jorge de Anda Figueroa, who worked at Joe’s when Burroughs lived in the Valley, greeted us warmly, regaling us with stories about the old days. After listening for a while, Johnson pulled out a black and white photo of Burroughs and handed it to Figueroa. “Did you ever see this man at Joe’s?” he asked. The old man stared at the photo for a long time, then shook his head.

We all retired to a nearby bar, where we would spend the evening discussing Burroughs over glasses of cold Mexican beer. As we walked there, the tunes of mariachis drifted past us, sweet and lonesome. American girls in prom dresses teetered by, barely steadied by their boyfriends in rented tuxedos. That night, in the fading evening light, you could almost see William S. Burroughs—properly dressed in his snap-brim hat and three-piece suit, his tie slightly askew—slipping down the streets of Reynosa and disappearing into the crowd.

“A premonition of doom hangs over the Valley,” Burroughs wrote in his novel Junky about the stretch of South Texas he once called home. “You have to make it now before something happens, before the black fly ruins the citrus, before support prices are taken off the cotton, before the flood, the hurricane, the freeze, the long dry spell … The threat of disaster is always there, persistent and disquieting as the afternoon wind. The Valley was desert, and it will be desert again. Meanwhile you try to make yours while there is still time.

“The hunt for Burroughs’ lost years in Texas began two years ago when the forty-year-old Johnson was researching the Beats. “I saw these Pharr return addresses on his letters and I was amazed, because I hadn’t realized he’d lived here,” Johnson says. “It turned out that his land was only a few miles from the university.” Ever since, Johnson has documented what little could be found about Burroughs’ life in South Texas from tax records, letters, and news clippings, an undertaking whose first payoff was finding the farm that Burroughs once owned. When Johnson subsequently took his graduate students there and read to them from Junky, one student knelt down and scooped up a handful of dirt as a keepsake.

The morning we set out on our tour was hot and dry. Grauerholz—who was Burroughs’ editor, manager, and companion from 1974 until his death in 1997—is writing a two-volume biography for Grove Press. Although the 48-year-old has devoted more than half of his life to the writer, the Valley years remain a mystery. As we drove past grapefruit groves and sugarcane fields, Grauerholz studied the flat, verdant landscape. We soon turned into a modest residential neighborhood in Pharr, where we stopped by a large white rooming house with peeling paint. Peering at it in the morning light, we drew the attention of an old woman who was sweeping the front porch. Johnson leaned over and said, “This is as close as I can get to saying, ‘Burroughs slept here.’”

Burroughs came to South Texas to start anew. The scion of an old St. Louis family, he had spent the early forties in New York City, where he acquired a taste for morphine as part of the so-called libertine circle of future Beats that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He was arrested in 1946 for forging a prescription for opiates, and as a condition of his suspended sentence, he returned to St. Louis to spend the summer in his parents’ care. There he reconnected with his oldest friend, Kells Elvins, who had recently inherited a modest farming enterprise in the Rio Grande Valley. Elvins suggested that they go

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