And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Grove Press, New York, 2008
In the past I have looked at Jack Kerouac’s densely-packed explanations of his early days in such thinly-veiled autobiographical novels as “Maggie Cassidy” and “Visions Of Dulouz”, detailing his leap from working class Lowell to the bright lights of New York City in the very early 1940s. I have also gone on and on about the importance of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in the modern American literary canon. Here, in “Hippos” (for short), we are treated to both a very, very thinly- veiled novel about the fate of their mutual friend, Lucien Carr, and his troubles with the law as a result of his killing of an older man who was seemingly psychotically sexually attracted to the young man.
The novel is meant to work at the level of straight forward, straight talking exploration of the milieu behind the Carr crime and in the process gave this reader a very interesting take on war time New York, the goings-on of the emerging “Beat” crowd and their antics, and a look at the budding literary careers of two stalwarts of the American literary canon. None of those antics, however, are remarkable or really much different from the youth adventures of other writes except the always surprising New York City night life in war time. Parties, men who want women, dope, booze, jazz, blues, women who want men, men who want men, women who want women, more booze, more dope, and a few more cigarettes. Sounds very familiar. What makes this story a cut above the rest for an early literary effort is the crime story embedded in the overall scheme of things.
Does this joint effort work? Certainly this novel tells me that both authors are “literary” men destined for bigger things, even this early on. The literary device of telling the tale from two perspectives that do not necessarily give the same emphasis to events is interesting. However, whatever reason, literary or confessional, that drove this joint effort describing a story that both were personally involved in (including some criminal complicity, after the fact) there is not enough of either man giving his all to the telling. As community-oriented (fellow “beat” community-oriented, that is) as Kerouac and Burroughs were something is missing here. And what explains what is missing is the hard fact that “beat” writers, whatever their philosophical inclinations were primarily loners, at least loner writers. See if you agree.
Note: Although this novel has been touted mainly as a prime example of an early “beat” work the real virtue of its publication is the Afterword where William Burroughs’ literary executioner gives a very detailed and important description about how this “lost” work came to see the light of day. For “beat” literary scholars presumably already familiar with the Carr case in the careers of the authors this is priceless. Even I was fascinated by the twists and turned needed to get the thing published at all.