Missing a Beat:
Guilty of Everything. The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke. Foreword by William S. Burroughs. (NY: Paragon House, 1990.)
Book reviews by Rob Couteau
The Bloomsbury Review,
February 1991. (CO: Denver)
One definition of literature has it as that which “entertains and instructs.” Yet there’s another kind of literary endeavor that offers an instruction too crude and bleak to be considered entertaining, and it’s into this category that the present confession falls. Written in a flat first-person style that sounds as if it was first tape-recorded and then transcribed and edited, Huncke relates a series of grim (and often banal) tales of survival. A runaway turned dope addict, dealer, and thief, he scammed his way through Times Square, always on the lookout for a cheap fix or a “drunken bum” to roll. He survives by writing fake morphine prescriptions and dealing to the local prostitutes. Or by stealing. Or by manipulating his friends, hoping to get something for nothing.
As with any chronicle that touches on the raw nerves of the human condition in such a way that we are shocked at how horrible, indeed, life and the living of it can be, this memoir leaves one with a feeling of profound unease. It is a feeling, for instance, that runs throughout the work of Hubert Selby Jr. Selby’s pain, portrayed in a masterly style, rattles us and becomes our pain. We are buoyed neither by a happy ending nor by a literary justification of the human condition but, rather, by his artistry in transmitting such pain into art. Although Huncke’s work is not the stuff of high literature (and it’s unfair to Selby to draw such a comparison), the content (if not the style) of his memoir fascinates in similar ways and produces similar feelings of woe.
Although he was later propelled to notoriety by his involvement with (in his words) “the so-called Beats,” Huncke’s down-and-out lifestyle intrigued the far less beaten William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, well before either of them had achieved recognition. Columbia-educated Ginsberg and financially comfortable Burroughs (according to Huncke, “He was a member of the Burroughs adding machine family, and the family in general had money”) viewed Huncke as a “character” who was more streetwise than either of them, and, at various times, they offered him financial or emotional support. Huncke introduced Burroughs to shady characters and experiences (“I gave Burroughs his first shot”), and he was later portrayed in Burroughs’s first book, Junkie.
Years later, fragments of Huncke’s writings were assembled and published as Huncke’s Journal and The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. Yet, throughout his life, he envisioned himself not as a writer but rather as someone who merely enjoyed an association with those who led creative lives. Therefore, his importance was mainly as a behind-the-scenes figure. Indeed, had he not been associated with the Beats, this book would never have been deemed important enough to publish.
If one can judge a life by such a narrative, Huncke’s autobiography is composed of a nearly meaningless, aimless “drift.” The portrait that emerges is one of a hustler gamboling from scene to scene, from girlfriend to girlfriend or from boyfriend to boyfriend, using others and allowing himself to be used, as well. Viewed as a kind of social / historical document, one could commend its honesty and its ability to further reveal a world normally inaccessible to outsiders. It also serves to deromanticize the Beat legend, illustrating some of the gloomier, unseemly sides of a group that was not always–as Kerouac coined it–”beatific.”
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