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The Beats go on


Every few years there seems to be a fresh push to bring the Beat writers back into fashion. The thing is, the Beat aesthetic never really falls far out of vogue, its rebellious streak and love of the loner appealing to every generation since.

The latest Beat revival comes in a double whammy from Penguin, publisher of the new Book of Haikus by Jack Kerouac. The soft-cover, packaged in square gift-book format, looks at first like a shameless marketing ploy. But its content proves alluring, especially editor Regina Weinreich's introduction detailing Kerouac's fascination with haikus. Though the Beats were known (and criticized) for their "first thought, best thought" approach to prose, Kerouac extensively revised and recast his haikus. He also took great liberties with the form, dubbing his poems "American pops" not restrained by syllabic rules. What results is a collection of fulfilling little bon mots, best enjoyed a few at a time, as they tend to lose impact with overconsumption.

This month Penguin also rolls out a 50th anniversary edition of William S. Burroughs' Junky, the author's seminal first-person account of narcotics addiction. Dubbed the "definitive edition," the paperback includes a scholarly introduction by editor Oliver Harris, who painstakingly restored the author's original text and includes an omitted chapter.

But Junky might best be regarded as a lengthy appendix of sorts to Burroughs' most famous work, Naked Lunch. Grove Press offers a newly restored version of the controversial novel, taken from its original 1959 Paris manuscript.

For the Burroughs novice, Naked Lunch is as difficult to navigate as ever, with its opaque slang and stream-of-consciousness narration, even if its famous obscenity trial remains an important marker in American censorship law. What the author does master is a raw and unflinching insight into the underclass, the kind of outsider edge that, thankfully, never seems to fade from fashion.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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