Tom Peschio on Burroughs and His Guns
There were three bullet holes inside William Burroughs’ house that I know of. And possibly a few I don’t know about. In all fairness to William, two of them were accidental discharges by other people. One came about when after cocktails William’s friend Udo [Breger] accidentally shot the neighbor’s house through the window in the art room. Broken glass, smoke, ringing ears, shock, yelling, etc.
I asked Udo how it came about, and he excitedly explained in his German accent, but I couldn’t make any sense out of it, except that it was all very chaotic, and he was horrified. Udo is a classy guy and he understands that discharging firearms indoors when visiting people in their homes is surely the apex of rudeness. In most households anyway. In this instance they sat down to a nice home-cooked dinner after the smoke had cleared.
The other culprit was Wayne [Propst], supposedly. I’m not so sure he bears all the blame, though. The very credible story I got from him was that he and William were hanging out in the bedroom smoking weed and playing with William’s .38 S&W snubbie. This was the gun William carried at all times, and slept with under his pillow. The gun he was buried with, in fact. He was telling Wayne, possibly for the thousandth time, what a smooth trigger pull it had: “Go ahead, dry fire it, feel the action. It’s unloaded.” Kapow. Blew a hole in the bedroom wall and through the bathroom ceiling.
I have always suspected that William knew full well it was loaded, and I think Wayne knew on some level, too. In my mind, that incident was a clear-cut case of a couple guys impulsively deciding to liven up the evening.
The third bullet hole is in the jamb of the opening separating the two front rooms. It just kind of appeared one day. My theory, based on the available forensic and circumstantial evidence, is this: One night he shot it with a big gun.
(This just in: James [Grauerholz] says it was a visiting Englishman who accidentally let one go with one of William’s guns during a dinner party. I asked how, wondering if the gun was jammed or misfired or what. James shrugged and said, “He was an Englishman.” I assume he was referring to the fact that they don’t allow people to own handguns in the UK, so lots of Englishmen have never even held a gun. They’re not a gun-crazed nation like America. What they do when they want to shoot someone, I have no idea.
However, after James drew a diagram showing where the shooter was and where the furniture was in relation to the where the bullet hole is, it became apparent we were talking about two different bullet holes. The Englishman shot a hole in the east wall in the front room, about three feet beyond the jamb. This newly revealed information brings our bullet-hole tally up to four.)
Everything considered, there were lots and lots of rounds spent in that house. Years earlier William’s buddy George Kaull constructed a giant silencer in the basement. It was a ten-foot-long tube made of chicken wire and fiberglass insulation mounted horizontally on a stand. It was pretty effective. Just stick the gun in it and blast away at a target on the other end of the basement. They used to shoot relatively large-caliber handguns in the basement while people had drinks and conversation, unbothered, at the kitchen table directly above.
There were also countless tiny puncture marks in the front door, walls and trim from the blowgun. It shot three-inch steel darts at about 200 mph. Likewise, to this day the evidence of the knife-throwing range is also evident. “Knife-throwing range” being a fancy way of saying “garage.” Chucking knives and hatchets at the garage was a much-enjoyed activity. As was the BB gun range in the art room, I’m sure. I never got in on that, but the dozens of BB pocks in the plaster are unmistakable hallmarks of fun.
William went shooting at his friend Fred’s place out in the country fairly regularly. It’s beautiful out there, and Fred [Aldrich] was a great, if sometimes slightly nervous host. There were a couple of incidents there too, but surprisingly few given that many of the participants were visitors not used to handling guns and not acclimated to William’s booze and dope regimen. Not to say that people were getting wrecked while shooting as a general rule, but there were occasions…
One guy accidentally discharged a twelve-gauge shotgun into the ground and scared the shit out everybody, himself most of all. And William once got hit in the face with some rock shards. Not a good idea to use a rock wall as a backstop. Live and learn.
Michael [Emerton], William’s former assistant, told me that one evening while he was cooking dinner, William and Allen Ginsberg were out back testing out a new canister of pepper spray on the garage. They failed to take into account the wind direction or possibility of back-blast, and came staggering blindly into the kitchen, red-faced and disoriented. It’s true. Two of the greatest literary minds of the twentieth century maced themselves out there by the garage.
Michael also told me he agreed to be the test subject for William’s new stun gun, and bitterly regretted it.
Michael accompanied William to things like doctor visits, barbershops and things like that, places where people could not help but notice that this old man was wearing a pistol on his belt. After a couple of uncomfortable encounters Michael — who, I should point out, was himself not above drunkenly shooting handguns in his back yard on the Fourth of July — insisted William not wear his piece in public, at least not in situations where it would freak people out. William, of course, objected to such constraints. It got to the point where Michael would have to frisk William before going out. This is when William got his derringers, which could get by the pat-down. It ended up being an uneasy compromise.
William owned 28 guns and 43 knives. The guns ran the gamut from derringers to shotguns to flare guns to a .454 Casull, and everything in-between.
The .454 was the most powerful handgun manufactured at the time. It was a thoughtful gift from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, fellow writer and firearms enthusiast. It’s a gorgeous gun with a dull stainless-steel finish, black rubber grips and a sweet action, and came in a red felt-lined wooden box. The rounds cost a dollar each, and would go a mile. One mile, baby. It had a monstrously huge scope mounted on it, which I don’t think anyone ever bothered to sight properly. But accuracy was not the important consideration when shooting that gun. What was important was hanging on to it hard enough so it didn’t kick back, hit you in the face, and leave a big scope-shaped indentation.
William’s knives ranged from switchblades to scimitars to huge Bowie knives, and he was liable to whip one out at any given moment for a variety of reasons. There were frequent instructional demonstrations, of course. And he loved getting packages in the mail because it gave him an excuse to slash open the box with some nasty knife. Even when he was engaged in peaceful activities like making tea or reading a book William’s body movements were jerky, erratic, and fast, let alone when he was gleefully hacking open cardboard boxes. It was a little bit nerve-wracking watching him. He’d already cut off one pinky, and nobody wanted to watch him to lose the other.
More than once there weren’t enough steak knives to go around at dinner because he had hoarded them as weapons. I’d look in the silverware drawer, and there’d be only one steak knife. He had the rest of them stashed all over the house, in desk drawers, bookshelves, mixed in with the Main Knife Cache, all over. He also had many saps, a cattle prod modified for personal defense, a samurai sword, bear-claw brass knuckles (don’t ask), the aforementioned stun gun, sword-canes, a gun-cane, and countless other weapons.
It was a weapon-rich environment. It seemed normal at the time. But in addition to his huge arsenal, William considered many everyday household items as deadly weapons. He ordered a self-defense manual out of the back of a magazine that instructed the reader in Hikuta: The Art of Controlled Violence. The idea was to harness automatic response, such as recoiling from a hot stove, into smashing an ashtray or something into somebody’s face. According to the author and Grandmaster of Hikuta, he, using the techniques outlined in his manual, was thrown naked into a pit with twelve Dobermans and killed them all. Kinky, but impressive.
For a time William would jump at any opportunity to explain the Art of Controlled Violence to people, always with demonstrations. He developed some moves. Besides the ashtray-in-the-face, my favorite was him enacting suddenly jamming a ballpoint pen into somebody’s eyeball during a business meeting. He felt it was important to yell “Hikuta!” mid-thrust.
And, like a kid, he loved to play with his weapons. He’d do stuff like file and sand an old railroad spike by hand till it gleamed, or sharpen every knife in the house with a weird knife-sharpening gizmo he ordered through the mail. He insisted on cleaning all the guns himself after a shooting expedition. He liked the feel of steel in his hands.
He also entertained with weapons. Visitors always seemed to get a kick out of it when William, sometimes deep in his cups, would whip out a huge knife and demonstrate, for instance, how the Thuggees, hash-crazed Indian assassins of yore, would kill and gut people. (It was important to gut them so they wouldn’t balloon up post-mortem and pop out of their hastily dug shallow graves.) William would also animatedly-drunkenly wave loaded guns around, sweeping everyone in the room over and over. Generally speaking, visitors loved the floor show. I sought cover.
William was a dangerous guy, in lots of ways. Woe to anyone who fucked with him. Sometimes he was spoiling for a fight. One night after dinner he wanted to go down to Johnny’s Tavern and get in a fight. He was pushing eighty at the time. I don’t know how serious he was, but he was pretty riled up and impatiently waved off my argument against it, showing me how he’d handle the Johnny’s patrons with his Spyderco serrated lock-blade.
William was always prepared, mentally and practically, to fend off perceived threats like attacking dogs, marauding Christians (of which we’ve got more than our fair share here in Kansas), burglars, and unbalanced fans. And in retrospect, I believe that these were all valid threats, except maybe the dogs. He had a thing about dogs.
So late one night when a big, drunk Native American dude burst through his front door yelling angry gibberish, the smart money would not have had him walking back out. He was soused to the gills, agitatedly bellowing for his old lady, and didn’t understand he’d walked into the wrong house. The exact wrong house.
Instead of blowing a hole in him — the Lawrence police department’s preferred method of dealing with unruly Indians in the 1990s — William laid the “helpless old man” routine on him, talked him down and out the door. No ballpoint pens in the eyeballs, no bullets in the kill-zone, no pepper spray in the pie-hole. No nothing.
William talked a lot about shooting intruders: “Wouldn’t hesitate for a minute.” But when it came down to brass tacks, he opted for Cool. William, in the clutch, assessed that this guy meant him no harm, and so treated him with what bordered on gentleness when you consider the alternatives.
(He did mention to me that during his helpless-old-man bit he slowly backed to within arm’s reach of the credenza by the front door where he kept the “just-in-case” .45 stashed.)
He picked his fights rather than let them pick him. “Control” and the “Evil Spirit” were two life-long adversaries, not to mention his personal demons. We’re talking super-heavyweight division here. He fought them through his work. Tooth and nail. In this regard, his shotgun paintings are famous, or infamous, depending. I don’t know what they mean exactly, or where they fit into the Western art canon, or even in American pop culture. Like William, I tend to see art in terms of magical talismans.
He had a lot of fun with his paintings. He’d go through them with people, looking for things like faces or animals, or space aliens or demons or what have you. It was a gas. He’d pore over them, waving his gnarly old hands over them like a conjurer, giving a running commentary, sotto voce. And things would appear in front of your eyes. The paint splatters would reveal little scenes just the same way that clouds do if you stare at them hard enough. And once something recognizable came into view, its significance was felt right away. Looking at art with William was more like reading tea leaves or cloud-gazing than anything resembling an academic or aesthetic process. He was casting spells.
There’s an elephant in the room: Joan. How do all William’s gun-art and gun-antics relate to Joan’s death? I can’t say. I only heard him speak of Joan once, and I couldn’t fully understand what he was saying because he had his face in his hands, pacing back and forth, sort of sobbing. Joan’s accidental shooting is not the kind of thing one can ever really get out from under. I can’t shed much light on how the single biggest tragedy of his life impacted his art or predilections, though he sure did in his intro to Queer. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t even mention Joan. She was always present, if only faintly, hanging in the air like smoke.
William had his heart attack while journaling. Armed to the end with piece and pen, he didn’t take off his .38 till the paramedics were on their way. Bent over in his writing chair in his green army jacket, grimacing and groaning, clutching his chest like a gut-shot cowboy, he removed the holster and gun from his belt to stash under his pillow, and then they took him away.
Things have been a little quieter around here ever since.