Recently, The New York Review of Books has been sending out electronic mail promotions of their articles that include a hyperlink to a past review that might be considered for "classic" status. The latest of these is Mary McCarthy's review of The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, which appeared in the very first issue. I cannot think of a better way for a new literary publication to put its stake in the ground in February of 1963. By way of historical context, Grove Press had published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961; and the book had to endure a series of obscenity trials that did not let up until the Supreme Court ruled in its favor in 1964. One of those early trials was taking place in Philadelphia at the time that The New York Review of Books was launched. I was finishing my senior year at a suburban high school (with established redneck roots before being taken over by whole neighborhoods of white-collar professionals). I remember taking the train to New York to purchase my copy of Tropic of Cancer there and then "smuggle" it back home.
I always found Burroughs to be rougher trade than Miller. Indeed, as I wrote here back in August of 2011, one of his books provided me with the only occasion when I felt it was really necessary to conceal what I was reading. Strictly speaking, however, the book was not really Burroughs'. Rather, it was James Grauerholz’ editing of early material that would eventually find its way into Naked Lunch, published under the title Interzone. I remember that I purchased this book while on a business trip, which on reflection seems particularly relevant, since Naked Lunch was first published in Paris by Olympia Press in a series called Traveller's Companion! The fact that I had bought my copy of Interzone in Singapore (at a Tower Records that I used to frequent when I lived in Singapore) was amusing enough; but, while reading the book in my hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, I realized that did not want it lying around for the maid to discover (nor would it be a good idea to having it in my pocket during a business meeting)!
Thus, if Christmas is a time when we reflect on past deeds and future ambitions, being reminded of my experiences with Burroughs' writing by McCarthy's review strikes me as perfectly appropriate for the season!