Beginning in New York in 1944, James Campbell finds the leading members of what was to become the Beat Generation in the shadows of madness and criminality. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs had each seen the insides of a mental hospital and a prison by the age of thirty. A few months after they met, another member of their circle committed a murder that involved Kerouac and Burroughs as material witnesses.
This book charts the transformation of these experiences into literature, and a literary movement that spread across the globe. From "The First Cut-Up"--the murder in New York in 1944--we end up in Paris in 1960 with William Burroughs at the Beat Hotel, experimenting with the technique that made him notorious, what Campbell calls "The Final Cut-Up."
In between, we move to San Francisco, where Ginsberg gave the first public reading of Howl. We discover Burroughs in Mexico City and Tangiers; the French background to the Beats; the Buddhist influence on Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and others; the "Muses" Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady; the tortuous history of On the Road; and the black ancestry of the white hipster.