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See Junk for the book of similar title by Melvin Burgess.

Junky (also titled with the alternative spelling, Junkie) is a semi-autobiographical novel by William S. Burroughs. First published in 1953, it was Burroughs' first published novel and has come to be considered a seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s. Burroughs' working title for the text was Junk.


The novel was considered unpublishable more than it was controversial. Burroughs began it largely at the request and insistence of Allen Ginsberg, who was impressed by Burroughs’s letter-writing skill. Burroughs took up the task with little enthusiasm. However, partly because he saw that becoming a publishable writer was possible (his friend Jack Kerouac had published his first novel The Town and the City in 1950), he began to compile his experiences as an addict, ‘lush roller’ and small-time Greenwich Villagemarker heroin pusher.

Ginsberg as editor and literary agent

Burroughs's work would not have been published but for Allen Ginsberg’s drive and determination. Apart from his own artistic output, Ginsberg can justly be remembered as a great teacher of writing. Throughout his life, he shepherded many artistic works to fruition. Junkie was probably the first. Besides encouraging Burroughs to write, he worked as editor and agent for the manuscript while the manuscript was written in Mexico Citymarker during Burroughs’ forced flight from pending drug charges in New Orleansmarker. The companion piece to Junky, Queer, was written at the same time and parts of Queer were designed to be included in Junkie, since the first manuscript was dismissed as poorly written and lacking in interest and insight. After many rejection letters, Burroughs stopped writing.

Ginsberg miraculously found a publisher in a psychiatric hospital in New Jerseymarker. He had admitted himself to a Hobokenmarker hospital after getting kicked out of Columbia University. A. A. Wyn, who owned Ace Books, was pressured to consider the work upon the insistence of his nephew, Carl Solomon, who had been hospitalized in the same facility as Ginsberg. With this news, Ginsberg forced Burroughs to revisit the text. Ginsberg soothed Burroughs's indignation at the necessary edits, and was able to finally place the novel with the New York publishing house.

Publishing history and editions

50th anniversary edition, with Burroughs' intended title spelling.
Ace Books primarily catered to New York Citymarker subway riders, and competed in the same market as comic book, true crime and detective fiction publishers. Ace published no hardcover books, only cheap paperbacks, which sold for very little; Burroughs earned less than a cent royalty on each purchase.

Most libraries at the time did not buy Ace books, considering them trivial and without literary merit, and Ace paperbacks were never reviewed by literary critics. At the time of its publication, the novel (originally titled Junkie) was in a two-book ("dos-à-dos") omnibus edition (known as an "Ace Double") alongside a previously published 1941 novel called Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant. Burroughs chose to use the pseudonym "William Lee", Lee being his mother's maiden name, for the writing credit. The subtitle of the work was Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. This edition is a highly desired collectible and even below-average-condition copies have been known to cost hundreds of dollars. The United Statesmarker Library of Congressmarker purchased a copy in 1992 for its Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room.

Numerous reprints of the book appeared in the 1960s and 1970s once Burroughs achieved notability with Naked Lunch. Generally, American editions used the original Junkie spelling for the title, while UKmarker editions usually changed this to Junky.

In 1977 a complete edition of the original text was finally published by Penguin Books with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg; sections of the manuscript referring to Burroughs’s homosexuality which had been edited out of earlier editions were included for the first time. In 2003, to mark the work's 50th anniversary, Penguin reissued the book as Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk." It included a new introduction by Oliver Harris, the Britishmarker literary scholar, who integrated new material never before published; Harris had found edits of deleted material in the literary archives of Allen Ginsberg.

The text

The text is memorable for its content and style. The distant, dry, laconic tone of the narrator is balanced by the openness and honesty of the story. Burroughs shows courage in offering details about his narrator’s behavior. He speaks from the vantage point of an eyewitness, reporting back to ‘straights’ the feelings, thoughts, actions and characters he meets in the criminal fringe of New Yorkmarker, at the Lexington Federal Narcotics Hospital/Prison in Kentuckymarker, and in New Orleansmarker and Mexico Citymarker.

It is worth mentioning that Burroughs had briefly attended Harvard Universitymarker in the late 1930s as a graduate student of anthropology. (He had already gotten an undergraduate degree from Harvard.) There is a definite ethnographic orientation to the story, especially in the beginning. One might argue that Burroughs was writing as a ‘scientist’ trying to accurately account for the language and lives of people most would consider degenerate. Dispelling stereotypes - even before the word was used to describe oversimplified opinions or beliefs - is one goal of the work. Yet Burroughs's narrator is free from any restriction to remain 'objective'. Insight and opinion, unsupported beyond the narrator's experience, is considered among the most memorable and interesting aspects of the text.

The story takes on a more personal tone when the narrator leaves New York. In subsequent sections the substantive facts are replaced by a more intimate, desperate search for meaning and escape from criminal sanction and permanent addiction. Throughout, there are flashes of Burroughs's fierce originality, acutely graphic description, and agonizingly candid confessions: traits that would mark his literature for the next forty years.

Recorded performances

At least three recordings have been issued featuring readings from this book. Some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Burroughs recorded an extensive passage from the book which was issued on a record album. Later, in the 1990s, two audio book editions were released, one read by actor David Carradine, and another read by Burroughs himself.

Popular culture

In the 1995 comedy film Clueless the character Christian (Justin Walker) can be seen reading the book (titled Junky) in class at high school.

In the fictional Preacher comics, the character Cassidy mentions that he knew Burroughs and claimed that he was perhaps the inspiration for a character in the novel.

Editions cited

  • Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. An Ace Original. William Lee. New York, NY: Ace Books, 1953. (No assigned ISBN. LC Control Number: 92183851)

  • Junky: Originally Published as Junkie Under the Pen Name of William Lee. William S. Burroughs with an introduction by Allen Ginsberg. 1st complete and unexpurgated edition. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1977. ISBN 0-14-004351-9

  • Junky: 50th Anniversary Definitive Edition. William S. Burroughs ; edited and with an introduction by Oliver Harris. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN 0-14-200316-6

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