‘The Stray Bullet’ book a riveting, insightful read
by W. Winston Skinner
William S. Burroughs was an American writer who fatally shot his wife in Mexico while playing William Tell.
“The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico” (University of Minnesota Press, paper, 176 pages, $17.95) was initially published in 1995 in Mexico. Jorge Garcia-Robles’ book, now translated into English by Daniel C. Schechter offers insights into William and Joan Burroughs, why they were in Mexico and the world that surrounded them.
Garcia-Robles depicted Burroughs — whose mother’s family had ties to the Coweta County area — as one who wound up in Mexico for pragmatic reasons and who largely lived in Mexico without being touched particularly by any aspect of its culture.
“The fact is that Burroughs could be somewhere without being there at all,” he wrote. “Burroughs was in Mexico, but he remained far, far away from it.”
In the new preface to the American edition, Garcia-Robles wrote: “Burroughs experienced Mexico in different ways: he celebrated it, detested it, enjoyed it, suffered it. In his own words, it was on Mexican soil that his fatal vocation as a writer was born.”
Garcia-Robles also wrote that his goal in writing the book, was to “explore the Mexico-Burroughs connection, to break it down, look into its nooks and crannies.”
Garcia-Robles succeeded. He sets the stage for the Mexico years — relating how Burroughs met Joan Vollmer and how they formed a connection despite his homosexuality and her “somewhat libertine predilections.”
The Burroughs household, which include their own son and Joan’s daughter, moved to Texas to farm for awhile. Burroughs’ goal was to raise and sell marijuana. They then moved on to Mexico City, where Burroughs used the GI Bill to enroll in college — attending classes rarely and sporadically.
In the book, Garcia-Robles examined Joan’s death wish — her use of drugs at her own emotional and physical expense and to the neglect of her children. He also wrote of the “special, profound degree of communication” between Joan and Burroughs.
The details surrounding Joan’s death, the usually stoic Burroughs anguished reaction and the peculiarly Mexican legal process that followed are all well presented. Burroughs spent only 13 days in jail for shooting his wife. Garcia-Robles has drawn a sharp picture of Burroughs’ skilled Mexican attorney, Bernabe’ Jurado, and other acquaintances who crossed his path.
Ultimately the financial resources of Burroughs’ family enabled him to once again leave a country behind. The death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs, however, crystalised in William S. Burroughs the divergent feelings that fueled his literary and artistic successes to come.
As Garcia-Robles put it: “Burroughs would not have been able to think, write or paint as he thought, wrote and painted without having gone through the terrible experience of Joan’s death.”