(reblogged from Tony O'Neill's post on Guardian Book Blog August 2007.)
Herbert Huncke is little remembered these days, but he set the template for the Beats in both art and life.
Recently, I was lucky enough to see a rough cut of Huncke and Louis, Laki Vazakas' documentary on Beat godfather Herbert Huncke. It's a truly powerful piece of filmmaking, and one that got me thinking about Huncke's neglected place in the Beat canon. The man whom William S Burroughs called "an actual genius", the man who introduced the Naked Lunch author to his greatest muse (opiates), the man who inspired Jack Kerouac to use the term "Beat" in the first place - he is too often the forgotten face of the Beat Generation. Hiss biography is a vivid one: a teenage runaway who landed in New York's Times Square in the late 30s and became a heroin addict, hustler, petty criminal - and writer.
Huncke lived to a ripe old age without ever applying the brakes. He supposedly turned up to his appointment at the methadone clinic the day after his 81st birthday, and tested positive for heroin, marijuana, cocaine, methadone and Valium. "Why did you do it?" his frustrated doctor demanded. "I've been doing it my whole life," Huncke replied. "Why can't you just let me be?"
Unfortunately - but perhaps unsurprisingly - Huncke's work often exists in the shadow of this lifestyle. As Laki Vazakas said to me when we discussed his work, "Many people are dogmatic about drug taking, and this has led to Huncke's unfair pigeonholing as 'Huncke the Junkie' or 'the Junkie Muse' [the second phrase lifted from Huncke's New York Times obituary], two terms which show more about the prejudices of those who said them than the quality of the man's writing."
Later developments in the Beat canon - William Burroughs's cut-ups and sexually charged surrealist sci-fi, Allen Ginsberg's epic poetry, and the automatic writing of Jack Kerouac - often seemed deliberately obtuse. But the earliest examples of Beat literature - the early novels of both Burroughs and Kerouac - were wonderful examples of clarity and focus. Queer was probably Burroughs's most emotionally naked writing, while On The Road can still be easily read and digested in a way that Visions Of Cody cannot. It is with these books that Huncke's writings should sit.
In his lifetime he produced four books, Huncke's Journal, Elsie John and Joey Martinez, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson and Guilty Of Everything. In each of these works he mined the field of autobiographical writing, but - like Burroughs in Junky, or Kerouac in On The Road - elevated the form into high art. He was also capable of truly beautiful prose:
"Lay out the binding gauze - row upon row - mix the jellied fluids. Cleanse the injectors - open sacks of formaldehyde - rubber tubings - red rubber gloves. Hone the scalpels. The first slice is important and should be clean and true. Basins to catch the freshets of red blood - soon to pale and turn pale hue - wads of cotton to stuff the asshole - the nostrils - puff the cheeks - fill out the hollows."
Huncke's real skill lies in the place were art and life meet. His lifestyle WAS his art: the drugs, the prostitution, the homelessness, the years spent in jail - it all bled onto the page and created a new kind of poetry. He was the American Genet: a man with one foot firmly in the criminal underworld and one in literature. When taken as a whole, his writings (collected in The Huncke Reader, 1997) provide a blueprint for the origins of the Beat Generation, the writers that would open up the world of literature to the poetry of the street. They also contain some of the most beautiful, vital and thrilling writing to come out of post-war America.
While academia still argues about the relative worth of the Beat canon, those of us who do not see literature as a butterfly to be pinned, mounted and left to rot in a display case know what we know. While the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac were tied to an ideology that turned into the 60s movement - the idea that the world COULD be changed, that LSD, meditation, and free love could somehow topple the powers that be, it was Huncke, with his saint-like simplicity, who really hit the nail on the head. Raymond Foye recalls Herbert talking to him during the final weeks of his dizzying, exhilarating life, and musing: "I wish I could say I'd hit upon the answers to the great mysteries of life. But it doesn't make any more sense to me than it did on day one."