Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs


Undeniably the magnum opus of his later (some might say entire) career, the trilogy of novels produced by William S. Burroughs between 1981 and 1987 continues to cast its shadow as one of the most enduring pieces of experimental American literature ever written.

Whether readers find this “great work” to be great indeed or just greatly disappointing will largely depend on their opinion of Naked Lunch (1959) and his other novels from the 60s and 70s, because although the form and substance have matured quite a bit in the intervening decades, there is still much from these early cut-ups prefiguring the wild rides that are Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987). The lurid descriptions of sex, drugs, and violence are still very much present in Burroughs’ later work — packaged as ever with the surrealism and satire devotees have come to expect — but in addition to the standard W.S.B. tropes on desire and disgust, we now have giant diseased centipedes, fearsome gods and goddesses, and (just for good measure) time-traveling, shape-shifting, homosexual cowboy assassins from outer space to contend with. If it all sounds a bit strange, you had better believe that it is.

It is important to note that Burroughs himself never intended these books as a trilogy per se, at least not in the same sense that readers and critics typically think of trilogies. Perhaps the term “trilogy” implies a bit more cohesion between the titles encompassing one than Burroughs was comfortable using to describe these three essentially scattershot novels. Anyone brave enough to read through all 896 convoluted pages will certainly understand why — such are the narrative acrobatics employed throughout, the second and third books could just as easily have been episodes from the first and second as continuations therefrom!

And yet, we can neither deny their commonalities in theme and subject matter nor the clear progression taking place from one book to the next — starting with the danger of physical death in the fabled cities, followed by the much graver concern of spiritual death on the dead roads, and finally the hope of transcending death altogether through pilgrimage to the lands west of the Nile. Still, each of the three books are perfectly capable of standing alone as self-contained (if internally explosive) narratives as well. Whatever Burroughs intended with them separately, however, when taken together they clearly constitute an arc of sorts, which is why we must consent to call them a trilogy after all, unofficial though it may be.

Cities of the Red Night (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 332 pages) follows a dual narrative, slipping fluidly between the early 18th century exploits of a libertarian pirate crew, led by gunsmith Noah Blake, and the late 20th century “private asshole” (Clem Snide) hired to find the decapitated remains of one Jerry Green — victim apparent of a bizarre hanging/sex cult. It is worth noting that hanging and the spontaneous erections/ejaculations induced by this mode of execution factor heavily into both tales, at times serving as the literal and symbolic connection between the two. Looking to the invocation, we find that the book itself is dedicated (amongst many others) to:

Ix Tab, Goddess of Ropes and Snares, patroness of those who hang themselves, to Schmuun, the Silent One, twin brother of Ix Tab, to Xolotl the Unformed, Lord of Rebirth, to Aguchi, Master of Ejaculations, to Osiris and Amen in phallic form, to Hex Chun Chan, the Dangerous One, to Ah Pook, the Destroyer, to the Great Old One and the Star Beast, to Pan, God of Panic, to the nameless gods of dispersal and emptiness, to Hassan i Sabbah, Master of Assassins, [and to] all the scribes and artists and practitioners of magic through whom these spirits have been manifested….

This intercultural pantheon of creative and destructive deities embodies the underlying mythos of the novel, which centers on transmutation of the soul through the simultaneous experience of orgasm and bodily death. Suggested is the notion of the spirit itself erupting from the inflamed, blistering body, its distinctive musky aroma being that of the “Red Fever” (a.k.a. Virus B-23), a disease originally endemic to the ancient mythical cities for which the book is named: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. In one early episode, the enigmatic Dr. Peterson explains his theory on the virus:

Now let us consider the symptoms of Virus B-23: fever, rash, a characteristic odor, sexual frenzies, obsession with sex and death…. Is this so totally strange and alien? […] We know that a consuming passion can produce physical symptoms … fever … loss of appetite … even allergic reactions … and few conditions are more obsessional and potentially self-destructive than love. Are not the symptoms of Virus B-23 simply the symptoms of what we are pleased to call ‘love’? Eve, we are told, was made from Adam’s rib … so a hepatitis virus was once a healthy liver cell. If you will excuse me, ladies, nothing personal … we are all tainted by viral origins.

This equating of human biology and behavior with that of a viral organism is perhaps nothing new, but in Cities of the Red Night it is employed as a vital first premise to the view of reality postulated by the trilogy as a whole. In the world put forth by Burroughs, it is the soul itself which is the virus, bound to spread from one corporeal form to the next, at least until it it finds a host hardy enough to transcend life as we know it.

In The Place of Dead Roads (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 306 pages) Burroughs takes a detour into the old American West, beginning with the 1899 death of writer/gunslinger Kim Carsons in a Colorado shootout. From there the story unfolds in a nonlinear telling of Kim’s past experience — across vast swaths of time and space, under various forms and guises — as professional assassin and prominent member of “The Johnson Family” (incidentally, the novel’s original title). The Johnsons are a brotherhood of honorable thieves and other itinerants who play Robin Hood to the rapacious Sherif of Nottingham represented by the Immortality Control Board of Venus and their unwitting minions in government, religion, and other organizations of Earthly control. As might be expected, the goal of the Venusian conspiracy is to prevent our souls from ever reaching the Western Lands and the genuine immortality that awaits therein, keeping us forever trapped in a scheme of systematic vampirism that, like the serfdoms of medieval England and the wage slavery common to most modern states, is far from symbiotic in nature. In Kim’s words,

We’re not fighting for a scrap of sharecropper immortality with the strings hanging off it like Mafioso spaghetti. We want the whole tamale. The Johnsons are taking over the Western Lands. We built it with our brains and our hands. We paid for it with our blood and our lives. It’s ours and we’re going to take it. And we are not applying in triplicate to the Immortality Control Board. Anybody gets in our way we will get our communal back against a rock or a tree and fight the way a raccoon will fight a fucking dog.

The ancient Egyptians pioneered the preservation of the physical body and protection of the immortal soul through a marriage of science and the arcane, but compared to what Kim has in mind, their methods were crude and uncivilized at best. To begin with, mummification was something that only the obscenely rich could ever hope to afford, thus putting this route to immortality in direct conflict with Kim’s own socialist aims. But even if this privilege were equally available to all members of society, the logistics involved in shielding each and every mummy from the elements, vandals, and inevitable nuclear war were far too staggering to even consider. Besides, where would they even find the space to store them all?

Unlike the pharaohs and their obsession with securing impregnable tombs underground, or the astronauts and their insistence on having their entire “awkward life process encapsulated and transported [with them] into Space”, Kim searches for a way that we might ditch our flawed form altogether on our way through the cosmos and the six cities between us and the Western Lands. He considers the human body to be the prison that keeps us stuck in our inescapable cycle of sex and death, one which only furthers the aims of those feeding off our vital life energies. Therefore, just

[a]s a prisoner serving a life sentence can think only of escape, so Kim takes for granted that the only purpose of his life is space travel. […] The alien medium we glimpse beyond Time is Space. And that is where we are going. Kim sees dreams as a vital link to our biologic and spiritual destiny in space. […] Kim considers that immortality is the only goal worth striving for. He knows that it isn’t something you just automatically get for believing some nonsense or other like Christianity or Islam. It is something you have to work and fight for, like everything else in this life or another.

Though vanished from this Earth now for over one hundred thousand years already, the cities may yet exist on other planes and planets, after all. And if a soul is able to project itself through space as well as time, no longer encumbered by its former body, then its odds of locating the first station on the pilgrimage (Tamaghis) go from infinitesimal to infinite. For now anyway, the rest of us remain permanently earthbound and stranded, wandering through countless lives forever, somewhere along the dead roads:

‘And what is a dead road? Well, senor, somebody you used to meet, uno amigo, tal vez….” Remember a red brick house on Jane Street? Your breath quickens as you mount the worn red-carpeted stairs…. The road to 4 calle Larachi, Tangier, or 24 Arundle Terrace in London? So many dead roads you will never use again … a flickering gray haze of old photos … pools of darkness in the street like spilled ink … a dim movie marquee with smoky yellow bulbs … red-haired boy with a dead-white face. The guide points to a map of South America. “Here, senor … is the Place of Dead Roads.

The Western Lands (Viking Penguin 258 pages) wraps up the trilogy with a more involved look at the pilgrimage  thereto, intercut with crosscurrents from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and remembrances from the author’s own life, the mass of which merges into a hallucinogenic exploration of the potentialities inherent in our concept of the great beyond. Part memoir, part attempt to provide closure to the impossibly sprawling mythology he’s created, this book feels doubly relevant as we watch the story and W.S.B. himself galloping rapidly to their end:

Forty years ago the writer had published a novel which had made a stir. […] He still had the clippings, but they were yellow and brittle now and he never looked at them. If he had removed them from the cellophane covering in his scrapbook they would have shredded to dust. […] Often in the morning he would lie in bed and watch grids of typewritten words in front of his eyes that moved and shifted as he tried to read [them], but he never could. He thought if he could just copy these words down, which were not his own words, he might be able to put together another book and then… yes, and then what?

It is perhaps impossible to miss the autobiographical quality of this passage, though to dwell on this aspect is to miss the deeper connection implied between the dying writer and the countless other deaths realized in the often vain quest for immortality. Whether one seeks eternal life through their artistic legacy or by literally questing for the holy grail that is the Western Lands, only one thing is sure — “Life is very dangerous and few survive it.”

The word is out now that life after death is a real possibility, no longer a matter of unsubstantiated faith. As governments collapse and global catastrophe inches closer and closer, a “Great Awakening” washes over the land, and a mass of pilgrims as determined as they are desperate flock to heed the call:

Just as the Old World mariners suddenly glimpsed a round Earth to be circumnavigated and mapped, so awakened pilgrims catch hungry flashes of vast areas beyond Death to be created and discovered and charted, open to anyone ready to take a step into the unknown, a step as drastic and irretrievable as the transition from water to land. […] The pilgrimage to the Western Lands has started, the voyage through the Land of the Dead. Waves of exhilaration sweep the planet, awash in seas of silence. There is hope and purpose in these faces, and total alertness, for this is the most dangerous of all roads, for every pilgrim must meet and overcome his own death.

Kim is now en route to The Western Lands, along with Neferti, Hassan i Sabbah, and a host of others as they each attempt their own treacherous journey, fraught with every kind of danger imaginable. And while there is no shortage of deadly foes and lethal traps to be evaded or otherwise dealt with along the way, including (but certainly not limited to) the noxious “Breathers”, flying venomous scorpions, and Open Season duelists around every corner, perhaps the biggest impediment to progress on the pilgrim’s path is the sheer uncertainty of how best to proceed. As we are told at the outset of chapter seven:

Today’s easy passage may be tomorrow’s death trap. The obvious road is almost always a fool’s road, and beware the Middle Roads, the roads of moderation, common sense and careful planning. However, there is a time for planning, moderation and common sense.

Sound advice to be sure (wherever one’s destination), but when the eternal soul is on the line, seekers generally seek out more direct guidance than that! Perhaps this explains why we remain so inclined to find our way within the context of this or that philosophy, science, or religion — as ultimately flawed beings, flawed as we are in terms of even basic perception, it is not surprising that we so often look to others for the way. Then again, this would also explain why so few (if any) of us ever succeed in reaching the Western Lands….

One line we often hear about artists is that their work is not to be intellectualized, but rather experienced instead. This of course is meant to imply that their artistic efforts reflect too much depth and complexity to be summed up through conventional analysis. And while this is all too often just an excuse for incoherence and base absurdity, in the case of William S. Burroughs and his Dead Roads trilogy, it may have some actual applicability. For while each of the three books can and have been rigorously analyzed, their haunting imagery and oscillating plot lines teased out and laid bare for all to grasp and piece together, it is not the object of this review to accomplish such an impressive feat as that.

The purpose of a book review (an honest one anyway) is to provide just enough detail to justify the reviewer’s acceptance/rejection of the work under consideration, along with some explanation for the recommendation/warning off to others this implies. Whether this present review provides too much or too little detail it is hard to say, but it should at least be clear by now that the verdict is a favorable one. Even where the narrative treads perilously close to incomprehensibility, the interconnecting threads are always there to be picked up and followed, however jaggedly sewn they are at points. And while many scenes and episodes may seem a bit randomly placed here and there, very few of them do nothing to reinforce an intuitive understanding of what Burroughs is trying to accomplish holistically. Readers who prefer their fiction on the formulaic side will probably want to skip this author altogether, but for those who do not mind a more meditative exploration, unbound by the constraints of plot and character development, the widely disparate elements woven together in the Dead Roads trilogy are sure to leave a lasting impression.
Arthur Graham, author of  Frog City Updike (2010), Editorial (2010)

3 thoughts on “Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs

  1. Fabulous review! I sent this to my friend and we both agree this is more than just a book. It’s a talisman, and Burroughs own mummy! It justifies that when you read this, he is alive and reading it directly in that unmistakable voice. He’s a human, faults and all hence he is genuine and that what makes him immortal. This book is for the brave only. Like Aleister Crowley, Burroughs is untamed so ALL may be inspired! Awesome review!

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