2. James Otis – Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks at a Circus (1880)

Reading a writer’s childhood favourites is a productive exercise and I’m surprised that not more academics do it.

By the time a child is old enough to read, much of their core personality has already been formed. The first books that draw their attention are important then. They show us the birth of taste. Of the personality reaching out to recognise itself in the world.

There is a lot of Burroughs in Toby Tyler. Otis’ adventure story about a boy who runs away to join the circus foreshadows so much in Burroughs’ life that it’s tempting to read far too much into it, to overread it and, in a Burroughsian way, perhaps see it as a tarot-like warning of future calamities.

Indeed, Burroughs himself might have seen this. Toby Tyler is a recurring character in his cut-ups and routines, a boy who regularly finds himself in all sorts of (pornographic and ultraviolent) trouble. The short piece, “Fear and the Monkey” from The Burroughs File, is a direct reference to Otis’ narrative.

The novel begins with Toby Tyler lamenting the fact his cent will only buy six peanuts at the circus. He is an orphan, we learn, raised by a miserly Uncle Dan’l, who complains about the boy’s constant eating. His hunger is powerful, existential even, defining his personality:

“I’m an awful eater, an’ I can’t seem to help it. Somehow I’m hungry all the time. I don’t seem ever to get enough.”

His constant hunger is combined with laziness. Uncle Dan’l sends him out to rake hay only to find him rolling around in a haystack, crying and holding his belly on account of his hunger.

Constantly on the receiving end of Uncle Dan’l’s punishments, Toby believes himself worthless. “The fellers say I don’t amount to anything […] and Uncle Dan’l says I don’t an I suppose they know”.

Knowing an opportunity when he sees one, the peanut stand owner, Mr Job Lord, invites Toby to run away with the circus. If he works on the peanut stand, he promises, he’ll have a dollar a week and will only have to work in the evening, when the show is on.

Toby, hesitant, eventually decides to go, driven on by his hunger and his alienation.

Once he’s out of town Mr Job Lord soon turns on him and Toby is beaten black and blue. The only friends he meets at the circus are the human skeleton and the fat lady, from the freak show, and Old Bill the driver, who’s been at the circus “forty years, man and boy”.

He also befriends a monkey, Mr Stubbs. Otis makes the interesting decision to show us, the readers, how Mr Stubbs’ behaviour is that of an animal, while simultaneously showing us Toby’s view of him as a childlike little pet. As a result, when Mr Stubbs is eventually shot and killed, we aren’t particularly perturbed, even when Toby cries his eyes out.

There is a lot of play going on in Otis’ treatment of Toby. At times we feel his pain, but at others we are intentionally distanced from it, looking on as bystanders while he makes poor decisions and suffers the cost (usually in the form of a whippin’ (often a literal one)).

Overall, the book’s messages are ones befitting the Burroughsian universe: don’t let your hungers, literal or metaphorical, lead you into trouble; the glitz and glamour of show business is merely a front for money grubbing and manipulation; the handful of good people out there – “Johnsons”, as Burroughs calls them – are to be found only among the outcast, in this case the literal freaks, the worst paid members of the circus.

Also: don’t trust simians.

It’s unlikely that Otis’ writing itself had much of an impact on Burroughs. When a student is heard to shout “What about Toby Tyler?” in a Q&A section of one of the Naropa lectures (Burroughs put the book on his extended reading list), Burroughs replies “Oh, that’s kids’ stuff”.

Its themes are nevertheless prescient, however, and the fact that Toby keeps turning up in Burroughs’ writing suggests that the books must have made a deep impression on him as a lad. Perhaps he saw himself in Toby? Perhaps Toby’s suffering provided an early sadomasochistic thrill? Who knows.