The best thing about this collaboration between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs is its gruesomely comic title: “And the Hippos Were. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is an incomparable artifact from the early days of the Beats, a fascinating piece of American literary history, and a. And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks is now published for the first time. A barely encrypted roman à clef, it is narrated by Will Dennison.
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I n the summer of Jack Kerouac was 23, William Burroughs Both were members of a loose New York coterie of artsy dropouts but neither inn written anything substantial. Drifting between late-night bars, friends’ apartments and union halls, they were slowly becoming themselves, Kerouac slumming around as a half-hearted merchant seaman and Burroughs thwir on his patient metamorphosis into a wire-veined votary of morphine.
In those early days the Beat generation hadn’t even realised it was beat.
It was just broke and bored. And then, something happened. David Kammerer, a school friend of Burroughs, had come to New York to pursue his infatuation with Lucien Carr, a beautiful boy from a wealthy family.
A first stab at Beat
The two washed up in Manhattan, where on a mid-August night they shared a bottle of wine in Riverside Park. By hippoz time the sun came up, Carr had stabbed Kammerer in the chest with his scout knife and sunk the corpse in the Hudson river.
The crime was front-page news.
Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested when it emerged that Carr had gone to them afterwards for advice Kerouac even spent the following day helping to dispose of the murder weapon and persuading Carr to turn himself tanka. Once Carr was in prison, they decided to collaborate on a true-crime novel. They wrote alternate chapters, adding a suitably frenzied title from a news report about a circus fire.
The book is unmistakably a tyro effort but Kerouac thought it rather good then, writing to his sister about a ‘portrait of the “lost” segment of our generation, hard-boiled, honest, and sensationally real’.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs
Burroughs later described it as ‘not a very distinguished work’. The obligation to change names and facts also ruins at least one narrative opportunity: Here, Tourian kills Allen with a hatchet, a rare example of fact plotted more neatly than fiction.
For Beat aficionados, however, there are rough gems. Burroughs describes a morphine kick in a passage that could be injected uncut into Junky; and, after saying goodbye to Phillip, ‘Mike Ryko’ takes the first staggering steps towards On the Road, deciding ‘right then and there to go off and travel again.
I felt like seeing the Pennsylvania hills again, and the scrub pines of North Carolina. These are the highs.
But the most successful thing in Hippos is its low, sustained growl of violence. Burroughs has sailors brawling and policemen beating up harmless drunks; Kerouac’s merchant marines go on an orgiastic rampage in Nova Scotia long before the mysterious unseen killing at the book’s climax.
And it’s Kerouac who points to the wider violence boiling away far from New York’s melting pot: Phil and I watched some of this for a while, then we picked up our bags and left. This is numb, declarative writing. What shocked thelr was the sheer absence of shock, ‘as tho someone’d woken me up with the news of a new leak in the cellar’.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks – Wikipedia
Hippos, rough as it is, catches something of that anomie – but it also raises the possibility of escape. Burroughs chose heroin, and never got free of the addiction. Kerouac went tneir Carr served two years in jail before becoming an editor.
The war ended, and the Beats went on. Topics Crime fiction The Observer.