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By (November 1, 2008) One Comment

And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks

By Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
Grove Press, 2008

Jack Kerouac’s obituary, from The New York Times of October 22, 1969, is heartbreaking. The fourth paragraph, in its entirety, reads: “Mr. Kerouac’s admirers regarded him as a major literary innovator and something of a religious seer, but this estimate of his achievement never gained wide acceptance among literary tastemakers.” The fifth notes that “as it became fashionable to be beat, it became less fashionable to read Jack Kerouac.” The obituary ends with the unsettling image of Kerouac showing off a painting of Pope Paul IV to a Times reporter a month before his death. “You know who painted that?” he asks. “Me.”

This is a long way away from the idealized figure of Kerouac that currently captivates the American imagination; he has had a very successful afterlife. His books sell in used bookstores, and his books sell in airports. Last year, the 50th anniversary of On the Road provoked a wave of reflections and reassessments pegged to the release of the “Original Scroll” version of the book, as well as a number of books released to coincide with the occasion. His assessment by the “literary tastemakers” of the Times obituary seems to have improved considerably since his death, as his books maintain a secure place in high school and college curriculums. This year the 50th anniversary train rolls inexorably forward (it’s time for The Dharma Bums, with Kerouac’s unpublished life of the Buddha, Wake Up, to go with it), but the Kerouac release of greatest interest this fall is an even older work, one that significantly predates Kerouac’s major novels and illuminates his dynamic and productive literary friendship with William S. Burroughs.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks is a novel that Kerouac wrote with Burroughs, apparently in the first months of 1945. Neither of them had published anything when they started writing the book, and it did not serve as their breakthrough—it was rejected by Simon and Schuster. Reading it now, this is not surprising. It is an astoundingly clumsy document of two writers who have not yet found their voices. Both try on some variation of a “hard-boiled” style, with Burroughs trying for an early Hemingway-style flatness and Kerouac allowing himself a bit more chattiness and color. The book is as charming as it is awkward, and it is very charming.

For the plot of the novel, Kerouac and Burroughs fictionalized the events leading up to the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr in August of 1944. Carr was a good looking Columbia undergraduate and aspiring poet; Kammerer was his much older devotee, who had followed Carr across the country to various schools and states in order to be near him. Burroughs had been friends with the two men since his youth in St. Louis, and Kerouac came to know both of them well in New York. Carr stabbed Kammerer in the chest in Riverside Park after Kammerer allegedly attempted to force himself on Carr, after which Carr tied him up with shoelaces, weighted him down with rocks, and threw him in the Hudson River. The precise contours of Carr’s sexuality were ambiguous (he had a girlfriend, and was apparently sexually involved with Ginsberg on at least one occasion), but the story of the homosexual Kammerer attempting to have his way with the unwilling Carr was the one that was presented to the police and the courts. Carr confessed the murder to Burroughs immediately, then spent the next day drinking, watching movies, and looking at paintings with Kerouac before hiring a lawyer and turning himself in to the police. Both Kerouac and Burroughs were held as material witnesses due to their interactions with Carr after the murder, and Kerouac spent weeks in jail, bailed out by his girlfriend Edie Parker’s parents only after he married her while incarcerated. Burroughs was quickly bailed out by his wealthy parents and hustled back to his childhood home in St. Louis.

William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Allen Ginsberg, 1953

The Kammerer-Carr saga—with its violence and romance and echoes of Rimbaud and Verlaine— resonated deeply with Kerouac and Burroughs, and it became a central element of the Beat origin myth. Kerouac chronicled the lead-up to the murder and its aftermath in the last novel he published before he died, Vanity of Duluoz, apparently drawing on the unpublished Hippos manuscript. The history of the numerous competing versions of the murder story, as well as the legal maneuverings required in order to finally publish the original Kerouac-Burroughs manuscript now, are recounted helpfully, though somewhat sparely, by James Grauerholz in his Afterward to Hippos. Biographers and scholars have dedicated an extraordinary amount of time to the details of the case, and the publication of this novel certainly provides a bounty of new clues and red herrings for those trying to untangle the fact from the fiction in the Beat narrative. One can get pretty far down this rabbit hole—how many times did Carr stab Kammerer? The Times says 2 but Kerouac’s novel says 12—but that sort of detective work tends to ignore the literary merits of the Beat writers, who, after all, thought of themselves primarily as novelists and poets, not memoirists or biographers.

Kerouac and Burroughs’ writing styles in Hippos are the most similar they would ever be. Though in later years, Kerouac edited, typed, and came up with titles for Burroughs’ haphazard manuscripts (the name Naked Lunch is famously his brainchild), the two writers’ methods and final products were wildly different, with Kerouac eventually settling on a ragged though largely naturalistic style meant to convey the momentum of the mind in action, and Burroughs relying on unwieldy cross-genre “cutups” of paragraphs and sentences to depict a fragmented consciousness. In Hippos, there are hints of the artists to come, though they are buried in a claustrophobic narrative that consists of endless circlings of West Village apartments, bars, and union halls. Whereas Kerouac’s other “lost” book from this period, Orpheus Emerged, centers mostly on long quasi-philosophical conversations between the young characters, Hippos is more interested in the atmosphere of the city, and maintains a fairly breakneck pace by never lingering too long in one place. The conceit of switching back and forth between narrators every chapter also keeps things speeding along—it creates the illusion that one is listening to a radio broadcast from one station, only to have the frequency changed every few minutes, with the narrative sometimes overlapping and the two voices bleeding into one another.

This radio motif is explicitly present in a couple of scenes, one of which gives the book its title. The Kerouac character, Mike Ryko, is sitting in a bar with Phillip Tourian (Carr), Tourian’s girlfriend Barbara, and their friend James Cathcart. The scene has a sketched quality that is typical of the book:

The bartender had the radio going. A news broadcaster was telling about a circus fire, and I heard him say, “And the hippos were boiled to death in their tanks.”He gave these details with the unctuous relish characteristic of radio announcers.
Phillip turned to Barbara and said, “Could you go for some boiled hippo, Babsy?”
Barbara said, “I don’t think that’s funny.”
Phillip said, “Well, let’s eat anyway.”

And then they’re off to the Automat at 57th St., and then to Washington Square, and then to their apartment, and then to Minetta’s Tavern, all in the space of less than a page. The titular phrase is a throwaway, but its tossed-off quality is representative of Kerouac and Burroughs’ narrative restlessness throughout the book. In his Afterward, Grauerholz does the due diligence on the source of the real circus fire radio broadcast, finding many instances in which Burroughs and Kerouac recalled hearing it and deciding it would make a good title. Grauerholz essentially declares all of these recollectons bullshit on some level or another. It seems very much of a piece with Burroughs’ macabre and surreal sensibility to come up with the image of hippos being boiled alive without any help from a radio broadcast, but as with much of Beat historical quibbling, the “realness” of the radio broadcast that Kerouac and Burroughs heard or made up is sort of beside the point. The boys decided on an unwieldy, stupid title for their “serious” novel—fans of independent rock music may recognize this impulse in the band TV on the Radio, who named their apocalyptic second album Return to Cookie Mountain because … it was a level of a video game they really liked. Some silly ideas never go out of fashion.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, 1953

Kerouac also uses a radio broadcast a few pages earlier to experiment with a very primitive version of the “cut-up” method that Burroughs would later exploit to great effect in his Interzone writings, much of which became Naked Lunch, as well as in subsequent books. Kerouac juxtaposes a philosophical monologue about the nature of the artist in society by Phillip Tourian with a monologue from a “country doctor” doling out truisms on a radio soap opera. Phillip says things like, “There are artists in the pre-ultimate society who are contemporary models of the ultimate artist-citizen” while the country doctor says “Human beings are essentially good” and “Sometimes, sometimes the going is tough.” The scene climaxes with Phillip yelling “For Christ’s sake turn that fucking thing off!” Kerouac is rather ham-handedly illustrating the conflict between mass culture and the intellect, a conflict that would gain new urgency with the rise of television, a medium Kerouac benefited from but was ambivalent about. The radio soap opera is something of an easy target in this case, and Burroughs eventually found much more complex relationships between his random source material and his own writing, elevating genre fiction and pornography to artistic heights through nearly incomprehensible layering.

In Hippos, however, Burroughs is as yet unable to elevate his genre writing to the level of art. At this early stage, he’s having trouble elevating his writing to the level of genre books at all. As was his wont, Burroughs is interested in the more sordid aspects of New York. His narrator is Will Dennison, and from his vantage point as a bartender he is able to observe the character types who would copiously populate his later books:

As I walked down the bar I noticed a fag, a couple of whores with two Broadway Sams, and the usual sprinkle of servicemen. Three plainclothes dicks were drinking scotch at the far end of the bar.

The Hemingway/Dashiell Hammett imitation is obvious in the deliberately artless repetition of the word “bar” in the two consecutive sentences.

The next page features a precursor to the casual hyperbole and outrage that powers so much of Burroughs later work:

One of the sailors asked me where all the women were in this town, and I said they were in Brooklyn, hundreds of them on every corner. Then I started to tell them how to get there and they were so dumb they didn’t understand me, but they left anyway. I took their glasses off the bar and sloshed them through dirty water and they were washed.

Of course, his later work would have probably substituted that Hemingway aping in the final line for something about the sailors’ “jissom soaked anal rampaging” through Brooklyn or some such thing, but at this point Burroughs does not yet have the imaginative confidence to do any more than lay the foundation for his later triumphs.

There are other moments where Burroughs style seems unintentionally comic, rather than purposefully absurdist. Chapter 5 begins:

Monday morning I got a letter from a detective agency to report to work. I’d applied for a job about a month ago and almost forgotten about it. Evidently they hadn’t checked on my fingerprints and the fake references I’d given them.

Evidently indeed! The weirdest thing about this plot development is that Burroughs actually was a private detective for a time during this period of his life—perhaps he himself was suddenly hired by an agency after forgetting he’d applied with forged documents. With Burroughs, of course, this is far from outside the realm of possibility. The narrative breakdown seems less a failure of the imagination and more an inability to realistically render true very strange circumstances. A similar problem occurs in the scene in which Phillip arrives at Will’s apartment and tells him that he has murdered Ramsey Allen. Burroughs writes:

He sat down and said, “I need a hundred dollars to skip the country. I’m going to Mexico.”
I said, “Not so fast, young man. What’s all this about Al?”
This very well may have been the way it actually went down, but in Burroughs stilted framing, it sounds alarmingly similar to the generic melodrama of that radio soap opera that Phillip demands be turned off.

Amidst all this fumbling by the two inexperienced writers, there are a few strong, memorable moments. The best of these is a scene that takes place during one of the many interminable trips by Mike Ryko and Phillip Tourian to the Union Hall to try to get a place on a Merchant Marine ship. Kerouac’s Ryko embarks on an incongruous extended monologue to Phillip about a shore leave in Nova Scotia during a tour. Ryko goes on and on about his petty drunken exploits, but he is uninhibited by the clunky constraints of the larger plot that Kerouac and Burroughs have constructed. In this loose-limbed story telling style, we see an embryonic version of the great shaggy dog stories of On the Road and The Subterraneans. The end of the story showcases Kerouac accessing his full powers:

It was all a blur to me. I remember later on we were standing in a courtyard somewhere in midtown Boston and the seaman with me was calling up to a second-story window where a whore was supposed to live. The window opened and this big Negro stuck his head out and poured a bucket of hot water down on us.

Well finally, the sun came up, and I was lying on a city department toolbox on Atlantic Avenue, right on the waterfront, and there were all these little fishing smacks docked right beside me with the red sun touching their masts. I watched that for awhile, then I sort of dragged myself to North Station to get my gear, and then had to go across town in a taxi to South Station and buy a ticket from New York. I’ll never forget that glorious return to our fair shores.

The self-aware mythic current was present in Kerouac before this—his earliest writings, collected in Atop An Underwood attest to that—but here one can most clearly hear the Whitmanian cadences flowing through Kerouac’s authentic voice.
Though they rarely lived in the same city in the years following their collaborative New York years, Burroughs and Kerouac maintained their friendship for the rest of Kerouac’s life, with Burroughs popping up repeatedly throughout Kerouac’s ouvre, most famously as Old Bull in On the Road, attempting to grow marijuana crops in dusty East Texas. Kerouac took great pride in his friendship with Burroughs In a letter to Allen Ginsberg from 1952, Kerouac recounts his time with Burroughs in Mexico City, their adventures in the mountains, and their time spent living and working together. He writes of his arrival at the house one day: “Bill was like a mad genius in littered rooms when I walked in. He was writing. He looked wild, but his eyes innocent and blue and beautiful. We are the greatest friends at last.”

In a letter from 1955, he proposes that he and Burroughs collaborate on a full-length version of Kerouac’s in progress science-fiction short story “cityCityCITY.” He writes: “This is the story that I think we should collaborate on, for a full novel, making the first truly literarily valuable book written by two men (instead of Mutiny on the Bounty)—a real wild one… By William Lee and Jean-Louis. What say?” Nowhere in the letter does Kerouac mention Hippos, despite obvious parallels to that previous collaboration. Burroughs apparently wrote back to Kerouac with some vague advice about how to develop his story, implicitly declining the offer to collaborate. It is hard to imagine what a joint novel from these two would have looked like at this point in their careers, with Kerouac tangled up in Buddhism and Burroughs growing bolder and wilder in his experimental writing. By that point their artistic voices were too strong for the kind of chapter trading they had done in their younger days—compromise was not an option.

Near the end of Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac conjures a twilight image of him and Burroughs together, which he describes as “The central vision of Will, really…” The two are sitting in a yard in Morocco. Kerouac is asking for advice on a letter he’s writing to a woman. Burroughs declines to offer any, and Kerouac gets annoyed. Then something changes. In this writing, from the last book he published, in 1968, Kerouac is not the drunk dogmatic Catholic of his obituary. With Burroughs there, he is his mythic, younger self:

…we’re just sitting there peacefully not bothering each other at all, as usual, simply blue-eyed Will, in fact both of us listening to the sounds of the afternoon or even of Friday Afternoon in the Universe, the soundless hum of inside silence which he claims comes from the trees but I been out there in that treeless desert in the night and heard it… but we’re happy.

Andrew Martin is an editorial intern at The New York Review of Books. He has worked for Publisher’s Weekly, Newsweek On Air, and Andrew Cuomo.