These Are Your Heroes On Drugs, And They Kind of Suck

The path to excess leads to the path to wisdom.

-William Blake

Bull fucking shit it does

-Me, at age 38 upon reading William Blake's famous quote

So who wants to commit some literary blasphemy with me?

Well of course you do!

You guys all know who William S. Burroughs is, right? Yeah, he wrote Junky, Queer, and some rambling, delusionary “novel” called Naked Lunch. Yeah, Naked Lunch and everything else Burroughs wrote after Junky, it sucked. Absolutely unreadable. In fact, Burroughs’ novels are so obscenely unreadable that I’ve thought about initiating a nationwide campaign to have the books banned (By the way, I'm joking, so don’t get your panties in a bunch.) because of their overall crappiness.

So how’s about Charles Bukowski, anybody heard of that guy? Unrepentant drunk, used to work at the post office, wrote a shit ton of poetry.
Yeah, Bukowski, that guy sucks, too.

How about Hunter S. Thompson?

F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Raymond Carver? (God, that one hurts to admit.)

Jack Kerouac? (I can also lump Allen Ginsberg in here, too.)

Edward Bunker? (Listing Mr. Blue among these characters is killing me even more than listing Carver.)

Phillip K. Dick?

All of them, each and every single one, they’re shit.

Now at this point, I imagine I have a lot of people shaking their collective heads, thinking:
“How dare you, you little ashhole. I may not like fill in the blank but fill in the blank is a goddamn national treasure! Fill in the blank is one of the best writers to ever live!

And to a certain extent, I would have to agree with you. The writers I listed above have written one or two groundbreaking literary treasures. I mean, can you honestly picture a world without The Great Gatsby or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Without Naked Lunch? Of course not, these works are some of the most important pieces of writing to ever be produced, and without them more then a few writers wouldn’t exist. Without Burroughs, there’s no Thomas Pynchon; without Fitzgerald, there is no JD Salinger. (Or most American novelists for that matter.) Hell, without Thompson and Bukowski, I wouldn’t be writing in this ultra-personal style of nonfiction. But if you read deeper, you'll discover that most of them have rolled one or two of those literary treasures into a career where they've rewritten the same story over and over again, and most readers don't even realize it.

Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Carver and so on so forth. All of them, in one way or another, took my creative breath away. They were gods, pure and simple.

Let me put this thought out there, because it's one that I’ve come to embrace over the last several years:
Most readers don’t LOVE certain authors, they love one or two seminal works from an author, but haven’t read the entire body of their work; they just really, really, really like that one book. So whenever I’m talking authors with other readers and they say: “Oh, I just love Hunter S. Thompson!”

My automatic first thought is:

Oh, you mean you LOVE Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas or Hell’s Angels?

And it’s the same if they list Vonnegut, or Bukowski, or Chabon, or Egan. For most readers, it’s not the body, but a singular work which busted their heads open; it’s that one book that changed their world view or made them want to seek out other authors of similar style. True, they may own the rest of the books of their “favorite author,” but generally speaking, they’ve maybe read one or two other titles and have left those other books sitting on the shelf, collecting dust. But if most readers delved a little deeper, particularly in to the writers I mentioned at the beginning of this column, they'd find an overwhelming amount of repetition

Now this particular rule doesn’t apply to me. As a reader, I’m the obsessive type. When I read a novel and it blows me out of the water, I absolutely have to track down the authors past works and devour them as a quickly as possible. (my latest obsession was Irish novelist Alan Glynn—that guy’s got some serious chops.) Which brings me to the authors I’ve listed above as sucking.

As a younger man, my obsessive nature was a bit of a handicap when it came to the books and authors I was into at the time. When I found an author who flipped a switch for me, all I could do was read that author; I would live and breathe them, talk about them obsessively until I finally came to the end of their oeuvre and I would scramble to find another writer to drool over. In my twenties, there was no lack of new-to-me authors to try on: Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Carver and so on so forth. All of them, in one way or another, took my creative breath away. They were gods, pure and simple.

Fast forward ten years. The 'me' of my 20's is long gone; I’m a suburbanite, married, a father, stable employement, 401k, medical insurance, homeowner, the whole about to enter middleage bit. But I’m happy, particularly since I'm sending out my writing in earnest for the first time and the response is more or less positive. And on top of that, I've discovered a whole slew of new writers to obsess on. But, for one reason or another, I decided that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to revisit some of the writers who turned me on back in the day; a kind of old home week to compare and contrast the writers of the here and now versus the writers of the past. So I cracked open some Bukowski, and then Carver, and then Burroughs (but barely Burroughs.) and discovered something.

These writers who I so long revered, well, their books and stories really didn’t progress beyond one or two subjects. Bukowski did nothing but write about himself. Carver did nothing but write about love in decline, and booze being the major cause of that decline. Burroughs wrote about whatever it was he was seeing when he was on the nod, and usually what he was seeing/writing about was weird sex with bug like humanoid creatures. And the more I delved into the writers of my past, the more I noticed this, and then I couldn’t help but notice that all of the writers I listed above shared one or two common threads. They were either:

A) Boozehounds, or
B) Junkies, or
C) A combination of the two

For those of you who don’t have much experience with boozing or drugging and pursuing those activities over long periods of time, let me clue you in on a couple of things that liquor and dope do to you. First off, it makes you feel absolutely fucking amazing. I’m telling you, the first time I dropped acid or did a line of whatever drug it was I was snorting up my nose was a come to Jesus moment, and then I spent years trying to replicate that feeling again. The second thing it does is it makes you want to smoke an assload of cigarettes. The third thing is that booze and drugs make you feel like shit after the high is over, so therefore you need to do MORE drugs so you don’t feel like shit. And the last thing it does, is completely fucks up your long and short term memory, particularly if you’re a long time user.

With Bukowski, Burroughs, Fitzgerald, Dick, Carver, Thompson, (With Thompson, the line is a little wobblier because he's a journalist, but thematically, there isn't much difference between one book and the next.) all of them went way too deep with their addictions, and because of it, all of them basically wrote the same book, the same story or poem over and over and over again. Sure, the names changed, maybe the town where the story takes place, but the imagery, the themes, they stayed exactly the same.

And if you think I’m wrong, go to your book shelf and do a blind taste test with the authors I’ve listed above. Go pull Love is a Dog From Hell and War All The Time by Bukowski; go pull Where I’m Calling From by Carver and read a couple of stories from it; go pull Naked Lunch and any of Burroughs I’m fucking or getting roughly fucked by a giant cephalopod books, and you’ll notice that even though some of the writing is out-in-out brilliant, all of it is pretty much one constant loop of mental and physical debauchery.

Once I finished rereading, I went back and reread all of my old writing, and I discovered that I was writing in the same never ending loop.

I can’t exactly say they (or I) wrote this way because of long term memory loss; that they wrote these books and stories because they forgot that they wrote the exact same thing a few months or a few years back. (Even the best novelists do this dead sober. I mean, read the last ten years of Phillip Roth’s output, because he pretty much touched on all the same themes now that he was writing about in his thirties.) But the last thing that drugs/booze do to you is it mentally pigeonholes you. Because when you do drugs long enough, if you drink long enough, all that matters is the substance, and it invades every detail in your life, particularly your chosen art form. And really, do you want to spend an entire career writing the same thing over and over again?

Fuck, I can’t believe how much I sounded like a Dare To Stay Off Drugs commercial from the 80’s (I do coke so I can work more, so I can buy more coke…) but the older I get and the more my tastes as both a writer and reader evolve, I really don’t want to read the same things over and over again. If I want that, I can spend what little free time I have watching The Bachelor, or one of the hundreds of remakes Hollywood makes a year, or read James Patterson and Janet Evanovitch novels. But I don’t want things to be the same; I want to fill my life with originality, with inspiration that goes beyond chemically altering myself.

Now I’m not saying don’t read the authors I’ve listed, because you know what, The Great Gatsby is one of the best novels ever written; Bukowski is funny and sad and wonderful; Edward Bunker’s novels are frightening and spell binding. (Bunker’s Dog Eat Dog is one of my hallmark novels along with Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Johnson’s Angels) Even early Burroughs (and I mean early, like Junky and Queer.) is brilliant. I’m not even saying don’t do drugs; smoke a joint if you want, (trust me, I know more then a few people who’d benefit from a bong toke now and again just so they would mellow the fuck out.) have a drink or two, hell get drunk every once in awhile. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to expand the consciousness; it’s just not such a hot idea to expand it so much that you become lost in it, and let's face it, after awhile, reading and writing about drunks and junkies just becomes flat out boring.

Alright gang, thanks for reading my blather, and as further thanks (and because I haven’t done it in awhile) I’m going to give away a copy of And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and all I want from you is for you to tell me who was one of your favorite authors when you were younger, but you can’t stand now and the reason why?

One commenter will be selected at random, and the contest is restricted to U.S. and Canadian residents only.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Kelsey Phillips's picture
Kelsey Phillips from Broadripple is reading Teatro Grottesco (Thomas Ligotti) July 7, 2014 - 9:28am

For no reason at all, I feel it neccessary to add to the clamor (without having anything original to contribute):

I assume it's fairly normal to "outgrow" certain themes, subject matter, and entire authors at some point. My biggest qualms with the world, social passions, interests, and perspectives will encounter major shifts from adolescence, to young adulthood, to middle age, etc. I would be alarmed if it didn't; my role in the world and in my own life had better change over time. Wouldn't it be sad if we stagnated? If I were as angsty today as I were fifteen years ago, I'd probably have tipped over by now.

I'd think that if every author could effectively write the gamut, we wouldn't need very many authors.

edwint's picture
edwint October 16, 2014 - 6:03am

i fully disagree. calling phil and hank shit this dude crossed the line.. (even tho hank would maybe agree cuz thats his style, it is hurtful to me). everybody can have their own opinions but fuck off with this shit.  kerouac presented simple beautiful truth zen style.  this disrespect is so irritating in light of the greatness of the writers he has tried unsuccessfully to diss. you just didn't comprehend, there is a depth that you have totally missed within the work dude.  use words to create a deeper world... fuck this shit, had to make this profile, this ignorance had me enraged i rarely am this worked up over shit but damn.... ok peace


Podsnap Bokanovsky's picture
Podsnap Bokanovsky December 5, 2014 - 10:38am

These days, owner's manuals for appliances are my livres of choice. They're refreshingly free of empty rhetoric, overblown metaphors, and sophomoric shock value.

Ha, ha -- sort of kidding.

Anyway, you have certainly vilified one of my favorite authors -- Vonnegut. For that, I will hate you, for a moment.

OK, I'm done.

You and some of the commenters do make some good points about how our youthful crotch-throbbings for certain authors give way to middle-age's flaccidity and enuresis. I was a Kerouac hound, years ago, so much so that a buddy and I, after reading On the Road, spent a summer driving aimlessly around the country. I guess doing something like that back in the late forties could have led one to romanticize about and get all gushy over Open Road America, but in the mid-eighties, it just led to car trouble, road-construction delays, and a run-in with a psychotic lesbian and her three-legged Irish wolfhound. And my buddy didn't exactly turn out to be a "sideburned hero of the snowy West." He refused to do any of the driving and, quite unlike Neal Cassady, hardly said a word, the whole trip, due to his being in a booze-induced stupor, à la the late-life Kerouac, most of the time. My subsequent forays into the rest of Ti Jean's oeuvre, over the years, have been as unedifying as that ill-fated voyage. I've even reread On the Road, which, now, I can only regard as quaint.

There are some writers who've held my attention. George Orwell was able to tackle a variety of subjects, without sounding the same -- Animal Farm, 1984, Burmese Days, and Down and Out in Paris and London. Why didn't this guy win a Nobel Prize? Hell, they should have delivered it to his front door, along with a bonus pepperoni pizza.

William Golding was able to avoid repeating himself -- Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin, The Spire, Darkness Visible. He won the Nobel Prize. The BBC reported that he was working in a farm field when he got the news. Then he smiled and went back to work. That's class.

Anthony Burgess was as multidimensional as he was prolific. Yes, yes, he's known almost exclusively for A Clockwork Orange, the handbook of dystopia that's so rumpled and fetished by punk hipsters but which Burgess considered a throwaway piece of crap. Few who've read it have ventured into his other great novels: Nothing Like the Sun, M/F, and the Enderby novels.

Orwell and Golding were sober chaps. Burgess was a heavy drinker, but it didn't seem to affect his output one way or the other.

So, maybe you have a point. I don't know.

I'm going to pour myself a triple calvados.

Simeó Bön Jeppsé's picture
Simeó Bön Jeppsé December 10, 2014 - 9:30am

Sorry I'm late to the party but, Kieth, you really don't think Franzen, Pynchon, or Don Dellilo circle around the same repetitive themes and issues? DFW would be another writer you might consider circling in the same rut. So basically, deeming work to be sucky because some of the author's books are better or more repetitive than others  as they proceed to enlighten their idea is a crappy way to judge a person's body of work. Also, what if the purpose of these repetition is more like a doctor having a speciality, and instead of switching from brain surgeon to proctologist mid-career they're further exploring the field they can acheive the most in? Such as PKD's progression from Man in the High Castle to Scanner Darkly and then whatever happened to him to cause him to produce the Exegesis.  So, basically, I disagree.

Jason Christopher Kisslinger's picture
Jason Christoph... January 2, 2015 - 8:21am

so you're proclaiming, with absolute certainty, that substance abuse stunts and/or retards the creative process? Other branches of art - such as music and painting - would beg to differ with your point of contention. 

Evan Silverman's picture
Evan Silverman August 27, 2015 - 2:03pm

You didn't even get the Blake quote right, it's "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."  

Britny Homme's picture
Britny Homme June 5, 2016 - 8:28pm

Damnit. I wanted so badly, to enjoy this article or blog or whatever the fuck you wanted this to be... I was with you for a while, but you crashed and burned after a few paragraphs. The way you tried to dissect the issues of drug and alcohol users, seemed forced and ignorant. You obviously know nothing about addiction. and trying to delve deeper into the subject only further solidified that notion. Oh you did some acid? Well, acid and other psychedelics are drugs that are almost  never abused. Have you ever heard of a person with a bad addiction to mushrooms? Hahaha....  Of course not. And you did a line of something?!! You sound entirely insincere... Pretending like you have an idea of what addiction or hard using looks like? Maybe you thought the majority of people wouldn't recognize the fact that you were a fake, or that you had googled what addiction was... But trust me, you arent fooling anyone. You seem to insist that your listed authors only stick to one subject in order to keep an audience. "Oh people love my drunk antics? Let's do that" What you fail to realize, is that this is not just to sell to readers, this is what they're whole life is compromised of. Unlike you, I have lived this life, addiction, turmoil and sex has been the focus of my last 15 years. So sure, to someone like you, these repetitive stories seem excessive and boring. And sure, if I was writing it may seem repetitive as fuck...But sorry, sometimes years and years and years and years of addiction, is our real story. And it is the truth of so so many people. Sorry to seem if I was ranting or saying that I did not enjoy some of your post. To be honest, I finished this and almost felt bad for you... A middle aged man who has never really dealt with authentic hardships or turmoil?.... What a terrible life, well at least as far as writers is concerned.... You know what I mean right? Otherwise your bitching is just... Well.. Bitching...

chankhinaski's picture
chankhinaski December 3, 2016 - 6:27pm

You all fail to realize a few things. Foremost among which, these guys are your favorite writers because they were Themselves, unrepentant and unwaiveringly, themselves. As such, why in fuck's name would you expect them to "switch it up," or "change their voice?" 

Second, the reputation they earned as "greats" was gained during a time in history when folks didn't have a lot of non-musical options to hear someone express thoughts. ideas, or emotions that were outside the box, to downright crazy.

Anyone who thought there was a fundamental issue with American society and the way it comported itself was left with very few places to turn to find like-minded individuals. In that environment, people held tight to authors like those mentioned above. It wasn't like today were every asshole can hop online and find thousands of idiots who share a similar worldview, or simply to be entertained in a manner that doesn't offend their sensibilities. 

In that environment, people held tight to authors like those mentioned above. If you think they did some rambling then, imagine them alive in our present multiverse, with all of it's trend-trash and fuckery. They'd rip new a-holes out of everything with an IP address. Ultimately, if you want a little variety, read a different author. But don't expect some of the most unique and rugged individuals of all-time to alter their voice to amuse you.

sno0ks's picture
sno0ks February 9, 2018 - 1:26pm

I was totally on board with this article. I love iconoclasts and recently concluded that Bukowski is pretty shitty. I looked past the formatting/grammar issuses. I was even willing to accept you shitting on Thompson and Dick, which I disagree with. But then I got to 'then.' That's when I stopped. You're criticizing writers, and yet you can barely craft a sentence yourself. How can someone be so ostensibly well-read and so utterly shit with the English language?

hhgoat's picture
hhgoat June 5, 2022 - 12:02am

Is this a serious post or is not knowing the difference between "then" and "than" supposed to be a joke?