Some Thoughts on William S. Burroughs’ Exterminator!

I’ve been fond of William S. Burroughs for a long time but never got around to reading any of his short fiction. The library had a copy of Exterminator!, and I decided to pick it up and see what Burroughs was like out of the cut-up novel he’s most known for. I quickly realised that any distinction between his short fiction and his experimental novels is arbitrary at best.

Burroughs’ short stories are not discreet; the same events are recalled from different perspectives, timelines bleed together, characters disappear and reappear in different stories. Exterminator! was apparently marketed as a novel, so this makes sense. If it wasn’t for the page breaks and the titles, this would really just be a standard Burroughs novel.

And I do mean standard. Like, there’s lots of babbling about mixing the image track and the sound track, lots of sexual psychoses, plenty of seedy unhinged characters flitting about in a shadowy world. Unmistakably Burroughs, but it is a bit less coherent than even the most fucked up and cut up of his other works, and this feeling is only increased by the fact that the two strongest stories in Exterminator! are the most discreet, coherent ones.

“The Discipline of DE” is an odd little story about a retired colonel that decides to start living in the moment. It has such a pleasant, even tone that it’s hard to believe it’s Burroughs; it could be right out of a self-help manual. And then it hits you. This *is* a self-help manual, in the guise of a short story; Burroughs’ DE (Do Easy) is just a mindfulness practice. If you’ve ever read that you should take your time while you brush your teeth and really focus on how it feels, then you’ll be familiar with the kinds of practices that Burroughs is describing. Don’t think it’s just boring and didactic though, there’s plenty of odd interjections about not spilling tea on the duchess, and an exploration of the idea that DE might make a good gunfighter. This story has an odd charm all of its own, but there’s an adaption of this story that’s only about nine minutes long, and is well worth your time.

The other story in Exterminator! that really stands out is “The ‘Priest’ they Called Him”. An archetypal Burroughs story about a desperate junky looking for a fix, but with a sweet twist; this is a Christmas story, and the ‘Priest’ charitably gives up his fix to help out a neighbour in need. This is one of my favourite Christmas stories, and I was familiar with it before I read Exterminator!, because what lead me to Burroughs?

Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain in particular, who collaborated with Burroughs on an excellent recording of the story that you can listen to below.

I need to read more Burroughs. I haven’t read Queer yet, and I’ve only read the first of The Red Night Trilogy. When I get around to it I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you like Burroughs, go read Exterminator!, particularly if you’re in the mood for some self-help, or a nice Christmas tale. I know, right?

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