And yet somehow here we are. Burroughs was born Chris Robison in 1965, into legendarily unpromising circumstances. His mother was a suicidal bad poet, his father a sadistic, alcoholic philosophy professor. When the marriage flamed out, after years of enthusiastic mutual abuse, Burroughs commenced his world-famous adolescence, as described in his ubiquitous 2002 debut memoir, Running With Scissors: His mother abandoned him to her eccentric psychiatrist, a Santa Claus look-alike who searched for hidden messages in his own feces, excused himself during therapy sessions to visit his “masturbatorium,” and allowed Burroughs to have a sexual relationship with a 34-year-old man. (According, at least, to Scissors.) After escaping this madhouse in his late teens, Burroughs reinvented himself: He went to computer school, changed his name (Burroughs after a defunct computer, the Burroughs tabulator; Augusten because it “sounded classic—but then, when you looked at it twice, absolutely unfamiliar”), and commenced the second, only mildly less world-famous phase of his life, described in his second memoir, Dry (2003): He landed a high-paying job in advertising, moved to New York, blew his money and health on alcohol and drugs, went to rehab, and lost his best friend, Pighead, to AIDS. After all of this tragedy, Burroughs discovered the circular salvation of the memoir. He was rescued from homelessness, alcoholism, crack, and abuse—in short, from everything depicted in his books—by the books themselves.
Today, Burroughs is the last of the big-game memoirists, targeted but still on his feet, still profitably working the cud of his dysfunctional youth, still memoiring, against all odds, under the vengeful glare of Oprah and her increasingly skeptical public. As the culture of memoir has imploded over the last few years—as JT LeRoy dissolved into some kind of conceptual-art project about Truth in Media, as James Frey suffered the most visible public flogging in the long history of global torture, as Margaret “Gangland” Seltzer was outed by her own sister as a pampered suburbanite, as Misha Defonseca admitted that she was neither a Holocaust survivor nor raised by wolves—Burroughs sat at his laptop, undeterred, furiously masticating his chemical gum, and claimed, with a perfectly straight face, to be faithfully transcribing the honest-to-God events of his past.
When Burroughs writes, he tells me, he drifts into a kind of shamanistic memory trance that allows him to travel freely through time. He never stops to look at what he’s typing, which he says would only distract him. Instead, his eyes glaze over, and he stares absently at the small aluminum strip between his laptop’s keyboard and screen. “When I am writing,” he says, “I am there. I’m there. I never, ever, in any of my books, ever, have thought, ‘Now, how would I have talked?’ That is not how I write. It feels like I just go back and I’m there. It’s like a movie. It’s extremely vivid. I’m a monkey at a typewriter, writing about the time it got M&Ms, and the time a blue M&M came out instead of a red one.” Like Proust, he works in bed, propped up on some pillows. He feels terror, excitement, and sadness; he cries. It’s more like a séance than a job.
Burroughs’s publicist has set us up for dinner at an unlikely venue, a tiny West Village cave with tastefully arranged paparazzi outside that also happens to be owned (and frequented) by Graydon Carter, whose magazine, Vanity Fair, published a long article about the Running With Scissors lawsuit—the biggest dent yet in Burroughs’s public credibility. In 2005, the family depicted in Scissors sued Burroughs for libel; the case settled last summer, when Burroughs and his publisher agreed to publish the book with a disclaimer recognizing that the family had a different perspective of the events described. (Burroughs called it “a victory for all memoirists.”) When I mention the Vanity Fair connection, he shrugs. He’s still wearing his book-publicity uniform, except this time his hat has a pig on it instead of a cow, and his T-shirt is a lighter shade of blue. When we sit down, he takes off his leather jacket to reveal a pair of tattoos running up each forearm: on his left arm, a mess of winding filigree, on his right, the phrase CICATRIX MANET—Latin for “The scar remains.” (He says he also has a spiral tattooed on the back of his shoulder, to remind him not to drink.) He has a way of shrinking already-small New York restaurants. His voice, as it locks into one of his speeches, tends to rise in volume to match the intensity of his thought, and to find its way into distant corners. The dignified elderly couple at the next table leaves not long after we sit down.