Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don Draper Eats A Naked Lunch

Portrait Of The Artist As A Psychotic Junkie.
Self-Portrait By William S. Burroughs, 1959.
(Image Courtesy Of Columbia University Library.)

There are a lot of weird parallels, or at least perpendiculars, between junkie hipster supreme William S. Burroughs (and/or his literary doppelganger William Lee), and Mad Men's Don Draper. I couldn't get that idea out of my head after looking over an April 2010 online exhibit: Naked Lunch: The First Fifty Years. Columbia University curator, Gerald W. Cloud created the virtual show to commemorate the celebrations held at Columbia's libraries in 2009, marking the half-century since the 1959 Paris publication of Burrough's most famous work. The archival materials on display, including original manuscripts; correspondence between Burroughs and other literary Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Jack Kerouac; and rare editions of Naked Lunch, come from Columbia's extensive holdings of documents related to the novel's creation, composition, and editing. But those Mad Men connections kept buzzing in my brain.

The Hollow Man.
Mad Men's Don Draper.
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia.)

The most obvious link is the time frame. Fictional Don Draper, based on real Chicago ad man Draper Daniels, starts out his televised "life" in March 1960. Burrough's junkie phantasmagoria shocked delicate (and even not so delicate) European sensibilities in late 1959, but the first American printing came later, in 1962. So Don and Bill are contemporaries. But the ties that bind these two go beyond their career highs, or just plain highs, in the same decade.

Both men are ruled, if not ruined, by vices. Don's are the standard, and reasonably socially acceptable: tobacco, booze, and broads. Compare that to Bill's big three: marijuana, heroin, and boys. Between the two of them, the waterfront is covered, and then some. But Don's a Boy Scout compared to Wild Bill, which makes perfect sense: Draper wants in on everything Burroughs wants out of.

Baby Burroughs was a wealthy WASP who ate breakfast with a Tiffany spoon. A trust fund tot, he was a grandson of the inventor of the adding machine. The profane patron saint of hipsters was born in staid St.Louis and educated at ritzy boarding schools "where the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens," according to Burroughs's biographer Ted Morgan. Before becoming a real-life and literary outlaw, Burroughs earned a degree in English literature from Harvard University. Little Donnie Draper would have sold his soul for what Burroughs was born with, if he'd ever actually been Little Donnie Draper.

Logo For Mad Men. Note Ever-Present Cigarette.
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia.)

Viewers learned in Mad Men's first season that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman. Whitman's deadbeat Dad impregnated a prostitute, and little Dick was the unfortunate byproduct. There was a real Don Draper, but Whitman accidentally killed him (long story), and assumed his identity. So the man we meet as suave seducer Don Draper, is the fictional creation of a killer. Something Burroughs would find far from foreign.

Burroughs notoriously shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, during a drunken game of "William Tell." Details of the crime are murky, but Vollmer apparently placed a shot glass (oh, the irony) atop her head, and Bill's aim was off. Burroughs credited the fall-out with making him a writer in the preface to his book, Queer: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing." So without some tragic collateral damage, we have no Don Draper or William Lee, as we know them. Causing a death gave both life. And a writer's life, yet another strange link in that chain.

First Edition Of Naked Lunch. (The "The" Was A Publisher's Error.)
Paris: Olympia Press, [1959]
(Image Courtesy of Columbia University Library.)

Both Burroughs and Draper make their dough as wordsmiths. But one spins a yarn that's the all-time Big Daddy of nightmares, while the other is a silver-tongued shiller of the American dream. Naked Lunch rubs the reader's nose in every form of excrement known to mankind, and quite a few made by odiously inhuman creatures. The book is dirty in the "unclean" sense, and in a double your displeasure, double your discomfort two-fer so sexually graphic that at one point it was banned in Boston. But nobody could accuse Burroughs of being dishonest, nor of glamorizing the junkie life. Like the characters in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, he's always trying to hit bottom. It isn't his fault the foundation of the doper's life is quicksand.

"Respectable" career-man Draper is the one who makes his daily Wonder Bread off the big lie. He sells the possibility of a dream life full of young-thinking Pepsi drinkers with Pepsodent smiles riding a carousel through Kodak moments. He's Madison Avenue's brightest young Turk, the pasha of the pitch, the sultan of sales. Draper's downfall is that he's bought into the fiction he sells. Having clawed his way successfully to the middle, even in American there's no room at the old money top where Burroughs began, he's become the poster boy for lives of quiet desperation. Don's doomed fling with a beatnik chick (he's as relentlessly hetero as Burroughs is frankly homo), ends with his resolve to (temporarily) go back to sleeping with his wife on "a bed made of money." He's honed himself to conform to the same consumer culture he soft soaps to saps.

Gentleman Junkie William S. Burroughs.
(Image Courtesy Of Lehmann Films.)

Insiders wanting out, outsiders wanting in. Flamboyantly embracing the outlaw life, desperately seeking status. Life on the junk, life selling junk. Creating a nightmarish truth, concocting a glamorous lie. Writing to save your soul, selling your soul to write. Spectacularly surrendering to the siren song of smack, self-medicating with scotch and soda to maintain the social surface. The psychotic outlaw-addict and the man in the gray flannel suit. Both hell bent on that great American pastime: reinvention. But the artistry of the addict betrays the poetry in his soul. And the Marlboro Man has a cancer at his core. Neither Burroughs/Lee nor Don Draper can escape the one thing they're trying to outrun: themselves. As William Faulkner put it,"the past isn't dead, it's not even past." Or to quote Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, "No matter where you go, there you are."

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