Just finished reading The Yage Letters, it's the fourth book I've read so far by William S. Burroughs, and it was a major disappointment. Not good at all. It sounded intriguing, the search for a drug that is said to stimulate sensitivity to telepathic communication; that's something that is totally up my alley. In fact, if you know of any books that deal with that subject matter, please do send them my way, via email or the comments, I'll look into it immediately.
Anyway, Burroughs lived many years south of the border in Mexico, mostly to escape prison time in the U.S. for long-time opiate addiction and dealing, and during his time there traveled extensively through Central and South America. This book, presented as a series of letters to friend Allen Ginsberg, chronicles his search for the hallucinogenic vine Yage, also known as Ayahuasca.
His experience with it was nothing special, and mostly negative. Though I have to say his documentation of the experience, not only of using, but the whole process of finding it, and the cultural folklore, encounters with shamans and such, acquired along the way was very brief and incomplete. Read more like informal letters to a friend, rather than an anthropological survey, which of course is I guess all that it was intended to be. But based on his other writings and ideas, which I believe are best captured in his interviews, where his extensive knowledge and intellect really shines, he could have done a lot better than this.
It's just that there wasn't really enough there in my opinion to even publish it as a book. The whole thing was less than eighty pages, and most of it, despite the title and description, centered not around the search for Yage, but the search for casual sex with young men, who in some cases were still what you would call boys, teenagers, barely legal. Okay, I don't care about Burroughs' homosexuality, doesn't bother me, but men who are over forty-years-old cruising for one night stands with 15 year old boys is in my opinion disgusting.
Its value is primarily autobiographical, but as far as providing information about Ayahuasca, and being a travelogue of 1950s Latin America, its value is minimal.
I don't know why, but I always seem to gravitate to reading dirty old men, people who, like Burroughs, Bukowski, Miller, in real life I would find so repulsive and degenerate that I'd have nothing to do with. I guess it's my shadow, such interests, that manifest purely in literary form, a fascination with inferior men with brilliant minds, tarnished by perverse, decadent habits and thoughts.
I'm not done with Burroughs just yet, but this one has turned out to be the least interesting and most disappointing book of his so far. Though I have to say, his books Junky, Queer, and The Yage Letters should all be read together, they were all written, though not published, around the same time, and deal with the same subject matter, that of addiction, gay cruising (despite the fact that he was married to a woman) and travels, and read like they could have been combined in one big autobiographical novel; with The Yage Letters being better as an appendix, rather than a stand-alone work; though I can understand why they did it that way. Junky was, after all, his first novel, and almost wasn't published. Its autobiographical value wouldn't be realized until many decades later.
I'm looking forward to reading more of his interviews, his novel Naked Lunch, and then moving on to other things for awhile. But I will be back.