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And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanksby William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac
The legendary "lost book" of the Beats, this early collaborative novel reveals two of the finest Beat writers at the beginning of their careers. Some of these chapters are brilliant short stories in and of themselves. An illuminating and enjoyable read.
Synopses & Reviews
The legendary unpublished collaboration between William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, a hard-boiled crime novel about a shocking murder at the dawn of the Beat Generation.
On August 14, 1944, Lucien Carr, a friend of William S. Burroughs from St. Louis, stabbed a man named David Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife and dropped the body into the Hudson River. Kammerer had long fawned over the younger Carr, making romantic advances that, for a time, it seemed Carr didn’t mind. But after six years as the older man’s protégé, either Carr had had enough or he was forced to defend himself. The next day, his clothes stained with blood, he went to his friends Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac for help. Doing so, he caught them up in the crime. The two were arrested for failing to inform the police, and a few months later, they were drawn to the crime in a different way.
Something about the murder, with its echoes of Verlaine and Rimbaud, captivated the Beats. Burroughs and Kerouac decided to collaborate on a fictionalization of the events of the summer of 1944, a crime novel in the style of Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. They alternated chapters, Burroughs writing as Will Dennison, a bartender steeped in the criminal underworld and Kerouac as Mike Ryko, a hard-drinking merchant marine in dirty chinos. For the title, they settled on a line from a news report they had heard one night while sitting in a bar near Columbus Circle. A circus in Hartford, Connecticut, had caught fire and the radio announcer ended his piece by stating "and the hippos were boiled in their tanks."
At this point, the writers were far from famous. Burroughs had written next to nothing, and Kerouac, though he had churned out hundreds of thousands of words, had met with little success — it would be five years before his first novel was published. When they submitted the novel to publishers, it was rejected by all, and sat unpublished for decades.
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 remarkable window into the personal lives of two hugely influential writers at the very beginning of their careers. It is also an engaging novel, a hypnotic descent into lust and obsession, drugs and alcohol, art and outsized dreams.
"And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks" is a literary curiosity, a genuine collectible. Here is its back story: In 1944, in New York, a group of men, young and some not so young, hung around Columbia University, trying to find themselves. They included Jack Kerouac, just coming off a short career in the Merchant Marine; William S. Burroughs, not yet having written a word but... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) already interested in the world of drugs; Allen Ginsberg, enthusiastic and charming but marginal to this story. These three shared mutual friends: Lucien Carr, a teenage boy genius who shone, particularly in Lionel Trilling's class (Have I dropped enough names yet?), and David Kammerer, a man who had taught Lucien in a private school about a half-dozen years before and who became hopelessly smitten with the kid. Carr would leave one school, enroll in another, and a few weeks later Kammerer would show up, just to look at him, to dote on him. Whether they had sex isn't known. But Kammerer would do things like sneak into Carr's room at night to watch him sleep. (One wonders now, decades later, where were Carr's parents? Or the police?) Unformed, hapless, maybe a dozen of these guys hung out, doing what many of us do before getting married and settling down. They visited one another's seedy apartments, cadged money for one six-pack after another, went in flocks to art movies, engaged in sophomoric conversation about the Meaning of Life. Then one sultry August night, Carr and Kammerer went out for a walk in a park. They quarreled. Carr stabbed Kammerer with a pocket knife, threw him into the Hudson River and went off to tell Burroughs about it. Burroughs suggested he find a good lawyer and say he'd been protecting his honor. Then Carr went around to ask Kerouac's advice — these were still just kids, remember — and the two of them spent one last aimless day wandering the streets of New York, looking at pictures in a museum, drinking at a series of bars, until Carr finally got up the nerve to turn himself in. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses. Burroughs, who had a respectable family back in St. Louis, asked for their help and got out on bond. Kerouac, who came from a very different kind of family, found that his stepfather wouldn't put up any money. Instead, Kerouac arranged to marry his then-girlfriend so that her parents would bail him out of jail. But what an event this was in these humdrum lives: an actual murder! For a bunch of grubby English majors, this seemed like the big time — Life with a capital L. Ginsberg began working on a novel about it in his creative-writing class, only to be hauled on the carpet by the dean and told to stop: Columbia already had enough bad publicity. Then Kerouac and Burroughs decided to collaborate on a novel about the murder, alternating chapters, writing in a hard-boiled style. Burroughs would take the part of a loner bartender and then detective; Kerouac would be pretty much himself — an ex-Merchant Marine, living with a sulky girlfriend, a guy who dreams incessantly of shipping out. Their manuscript, rejected by several New York publishers and then apparently forgotten, is now available in its entirety for the first time. In terms of plot, until the murder itself, paralyzing boredom is the order of the day. Groups of people drop by the apartments of other people who really don't want to see them. Characters spend long, long minutes on street corners deciding what restaurant to go to. They see movies and then argue about them. In a Burroughs chapter, a rat runs into the middle of a room, then runs away. At another point, the Kerouac character dislodges a dead roach from the bottom of a glass so that he can pour himself some milk. A few girls wander through the landscape, tolerated but barely paid attention to. Through these alternating chapters, the reader may search for the embryonic prose styles of two very different writers. Burroughs thinks shooting up morphine is dramatic and compelling enough to devote several paragraphs to the process. Kerouac lavishes time on the mechanics of shipping out and expresses a yearning to "travel far." But what really comes through most significantly here is how different times were then. No television! So people sat in rooms and looked at each other. The phone was down in the lobby; if your buzzer rang, that meant you had a phone call. And most of all, although this is a social circle of primarily gay guys, nobody mentions it or seems to acknowledge it except when a disgruntled girlfriend accuses someone of being "queer." To be gay was still to be an outlaw. What would Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg think of all these nice gay guys we have now, planning their weddings and asking their parents to the ceremony? And drugs have become so commonplace that checking into rehab is like visiting your Midwestern aunt. Carr was incarcerated for a couple of years, then found work at UPI, got married and had three kids, one being the acclaimed novelist Caleb Carr. Kerouac found joy for a while when he was out on that mystical Road. Burroughs found his "outlaw" admirers. Ginsberg, besides writing his poetry, dressed up in costume and played the harmonium. But "Hippos" is a story of poverty before they invented the dogma that went along with being "Beat," a story of rodents, vermin and unwashed limbs and dollar bills stolen from purses. You can collect it, but you really don't have to read it. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The appearance in print of And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac is a literary event, not only because it drew two of the three leading Beat writers into confederacy, but because the book told a story — of male friendship, gay obsession, and murder — that came to fascinate a score of American authors....It's a fascinating snapshot from a lost era. If you're looking for the link between Hemingway's impotent post-war drifters in The Sun Also Rises, the barflies and Tralalas of Last Exit to Brooklyn and the zonked-out kids of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, look no further." John Walsh, The Independent
In the summer of 1944, a shocking murder rocked the fledgling Beats. William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, both still unknown, we inspired by the crime to collaborate on a novel, a hard-boiled tale of bohemian New York during World War II, full of drugs and art, obsession and brutality, with scenes and characters drawn from their own lives. Finally published after more than sixty years, this is a captivating read, and incomparable literary artifact, and a window into the lives and art of two of the twentieth centurys most influential writers.
More than sixty years ago, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac sat down inNew York City to write a novel about the summer of 1944, when one of their friends killed another in a moment of brutal and tragic bloodshed. The two authors were then at the dawn of their careers, having yet to write anything of note. Alternating chapters and narrators, Burroughs and Kerouac pieced together a hard-boiled tale of bohemian New York during World War II, full of drugs and obsession, art and violence. The manuscript, called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks after a line from a news story about a fire at a circus, was submitted to publishers but rejected and confined to a filing cabinet for decades. This legendary collaboration between two of the twentieth centuries most influential writers is set to be published for the first time in the fall of 2008. A remarkable, fascinating piece of American literary history, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is also an engrossing, atmospheric novel that brings to life a shocking murder at the dawn of the Beat Generation.
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