Naked Lunch | Study Guide

William Burroughs

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Naked Lunch | Chapter 1 : And Start West | Summary



In New York City the narrator, aka William Lee, evades police who want him on drug charges after he discards a dropper and spoon. He boards a subway train, giving an officer the slip. On the train he observes the other passengers, initiating a conversation with a "kid" who seems desperate to appear "hip." He describes some of the members of his circle. The Gimp is killed by a hot shot in Philadelphia. The Vigilante goes around picking fights. The Shoe Store Kid (who readers later learn is Hassan) and the Rube trade sexual activity for drugs. The narrator makes his way to an automat (vending machine-style cafeteria), where he sees other junkies in various states of disrepair. He realizes he will be like them one day. He remembers some of the dealers he has known and considers what has become of them. Knowing the police already have his drug paraphernalia and information from Willy the Disk, the narrator decides to leave town.


The dropper and spoon are standard paraphernalia for heroin users. The spoon is used to reduce powdered heroin to a liquid state using heat, usually from a lighter. The user then employs the dropper to administer the dose through a hole in the skin. Chapter 3 reveals the hole is made with a pin or other sharp object. The narrator, filled with paranoia and dread, contrasts sharply with the kid who doesn't fully understand the implications of the life of an addict. The kid on the subway acts as a surrogate for the reader who also, presumably, doesn't fully understand the details of the narrator's experience—yet. The kid's deficient understanding is exposed by his enthusiasm for the narrator's approval, his desire to be thought of as "hip." The same could be said of the reader.

A hot shot is a dose containing poison, usually strychnine, usually administered to junkies who inform to the police. The narrator doesn't reveal what earned the Gimp his hot shot, but he takes pleasure in relating the story to his audience of one. Based on this pleasure, the reader can infer the Gimp committed a heinous betrayal.

Other aspects of the narrator's description reveal the lengths these addicts will go for a fix. Examples include the Vigilante's propensity for indiscriminate violence and the others' propensities for indiscriminate sex. The references to informants also reveal how far these addicts will go to avoid capture themselves and keep their addictions going. These informants include (presumably) the Gimp and Willy the Disk—who first appears in Burroughs's previous novel Junkie and is named for his disk-shaped mouth. The community of addicts isn't a community at all: it's every man for himself.

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