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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987

William Lee, a drug addict and hustler, and Jane, his companion, travel by automobile across the United States to Texas in search of drugs. After picking up a quart of paregoric and a quantity of Nembutal, they drive on to New Orleans. There they buy some heroin and continue on...

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William Lee, a drug addict and hustler, and Jane, his companion, travel by automobile across the United States to Texas in search of drugs. After picking up a quart of paregoric and a quantity of Nembutal, they drive on to New Orleans. There they buy some heroin and continue on to Mexico. During this trip, Lee, the narrator, delivers a rambling monologue about drug addicts, addiction, pushers, American cities, the police, narcotics agents, and the drag of life in suburban America where the neighborhoods are all the same and the people all dull and boring. In his monologue Lee concentrates on the terrible agony of need that the drug addict suffers. In Mexico, Lee needs to locate a drug supplier, and he finds one in Old Ike, a local junkie who receives a monthly drug allowance from the government. Jane meets a pimp who is a ritual marijuana user and who attempts to put her under his spell.

Lee then goes to Interzone, an imaginary city, which is a combination of the southern United States, South America, Tangier, New York, and Panama. There he meets Dr. Benway, a master at controlling human behavior who works for Islam, Inc. Benway gives Lee a tour of the Reconditioning Center in Freeland, a place where pseudoscience is practiced in bizarre experiments to brainwash human beings. Lee sees the monstrous results of Benway’s “science” in creatures called INDs, or humans who had had their minds stripped. INDs are human vegetables who behave like zombies.

Dr. Benway tells Lee about his twisted theories of addiction and describes in explicit detail the effects of various drugs, including morphine, LSD, and heroin. Benway shows Lee the criminal ward and gives him his opinions concerning homosexuality, specifically that it is a political crime. When a computer malfunctions, Benway and Lee have to leave the Reconditioning Center. As they depart, Lee describes the horrible mutants, English colonials, bores, explorers, Arab rioters, hypochondriacs, and rock-and-roll hoodlums in the streets and at the cafés they pass.

Interzone, the city, is described as a criss-crossing network of streets that run through and beneath dwelling cubicles, cafés, and odd-shaped rooms. Merchants sell Black Meat, the addictive flesh of a giant centipede. Mugwumps, subhuman, reptilelike creatures, sit on café stools and dispense mugwump fluid to addicts. In the hospital, Lee experiences withdrawal from narcotics and tells how horribly sick it makes him. Dr. Benway explains to the nurses and patients how he practices surgery. In an insane speech, Benway insults every standard of medicine and sanitary medical procedure. Lee continues to describe the effects of various addictive drugs, as he tries to take the cure.

In a plushly decorated Interzone bar, a mugwump has perverted sex with a young boy. The boy is tied up and hung from a wooden gallows. He is sodomized by the mugwump. At the point of orgasm the boy’s neck snaps. Satyrs, Arab women, Javanese dancers, Aztec priests, and various bizarre inhabitants of Interzone have outrageous sex with boys and with one another. At the campus of Interzone University, a professor lectures on perversions and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A. J. operates as an undercover agent disguised as a playboy and practical joker. At A. J.’s Annual Party, pornographic movies are shown to an audience of depraved sexual perverts who engage in bizarre acts of sadomasochism.

Lee describes Interzone as a Composite city, where all the houses are joined. In the Interzone Market at the Meet Café, wanderers, bums, junkies, drug pushers, dwarfs, and black marketeers meet to discuss drugs, philosophy, and Dr. Benway’s projects. Male prostitutes debate politics with members of the Nationalist Party. Lee recounts a number of short, perversely comic tales. Benway continues his pseudoscientific experiments with the assistance of Dr. Berger and a technician. They try to “cure” homosexuals by brainwashing them.

Islam, Inc., and several of the political parties of Interzone hold meetings at which the delegates and speakers are tortured and put to death. A. J. engages in disgusting behavior at the restaurant Chez Robert, calling a hundred starving hogs into the restaurant. After he leaves the restaurant, A. J. takes a baboon to the opera.

Lee tells the stories of a number of Interzone characters, including Clem and Jody, two vaudeville hoofers, and Salvador, an Italian pimp and drug dealer. Various parties—the Divisionists, Liquefactionists, and Senders—compete for control of the people in Interzone. Lee is forced to file an affidavit to avoid being evicted from his apartment. The County Clerk tells Lee about Doc Parker’s drugstore, where one can buy drugs. The Clerk also tells a story about the vicious murder of a black service station attendant in Texas. Lee tells of the lost and unlucky inhabitants of Interzone, who fail miserably at every enterprise they attempt. Carl Peterson, who lives in Freeland, a welfare state, is summoned by Dr. Benway to undergo tests at the Ministry of Mental Hygiene. Benway tells Carl that homosexuality is a sickness and that Carl might need treatment. Carl undergoes several tests to determine his sexual orientation. Finally, in disgust, Carl walks out of Benway’s clinic.

A sailor, who is in the throes of addiction, describes the Exterminator. The Exterminator is actually Lee, and his main job is to poison roaches with pyrethrum powder. Hauser and O’Brien, two narcotics officers, are ordered to arrest Lee at his apartment. After they arrive, Lee tries to take more drugs. Lee ends up murdering the two officers. The road through withdrawal and toward recovery is described by Lee as a horrible nightmare in which the junkie faces thoughts of suicide to cleanse his “rotting, phosphorescent bones,” and silence the “mangled insect screams.” Finally, Lee utters a few desperate words about drug sickness and the pathos of drug commerce and the smells of gasoline and slow, cold fires, burning endlessly.

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