Unpublished Beat novel in 'quite good' shock
Who would have thought there would be good stuff by Burroughs and
Kerouac still unpublished?
There's nothing new about writers' bottom drawers being emptied out
after they die, but news that another "Beat" novel is about to hit
the shelves initially struck me as one previously unpublished
publication too far. It makes sense that this most rock'n'roll group
of dead star writers should be subjected to the repackage, reissue,
re-evaluate, extra-track-and-a-free-poster treatment. But it's hard
not to be cynical when there are so many non-author-approved works
out there, not to mention all those endless biographies, films and
I remained unimpressed, even when I heard that the book gloried in
The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks and saw
beautifully understated cover. I was especially wary of anything that
might somehow so far have escaped publication, since the Beats were
already quite prepared to publish any amount of incoherent guff in
their own lifetimes. Kerouac's Book Of Dreams, which I forced myself
to read when a student, is a not even half-formed case in point.
That's a book that the man wrote when half asleep. About stuff he
couldn't remember properly. And wasn't even that interesting in the
first place. What could possibly have merited less attention from the
barrel scraper than that?
The (non) publication history of And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their
Tanks isn't one to inspire confidence either. Apparently the yet to
be famous duo submitted the work to most of the publishers in America
shortly after completing it in 1945 and not one took it on. Kerouac
might have declared in a letter to his sister, deliciously unaware of
what the future held for him, that the novel "can't be beat", but no
one else was interested. "In hindsight, I don't see why they should
have been," Burroughs told his biographer in the mid 1980s. "It
wasn't sensational enough … Nor was it well written enough."
But the long delay in publication was caused by more than a simple
suspicion that the book wasn't very good. There's also the serious
consideration that the subject of the book didn't want it published
in his lifetime.
This was Lucien Carr, best known to Beat watchers as the dedicatee of
Allen Ginsberg's Howl. When Carr died in 2005 he was a respected
United Press editor and family man. Back in 1944 things were very
different. Then he was 17 and beautiful: "the kind of boy literary
fags write sonnets to, which start out 'O Graecian Lad'", as
Burroughs says in the Hippos book. He was sexually ambivalent, the
friend of the fast living Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen
Ginsberg. And he was a murderer.
On August 13 1944, he had stabbed David Kammerer with a boy scout
knife, weighted down his pockets with stones and thrown him in the
Hudson River. He claimed that the older, bigger Kammerer had
attempted to sexually assault him, the incident became front page
news in the Daily News as "an honour slaying" and Carr only got two
years. Not surprisingly, however, he wasn't keen on the story getting
too much attention while he was forging his new life.
The lurid fascination of this ugly story is well replicated in the
novel. The true(ish) story that Burroughs and Kerouac tell is sleazy,
raw and painfully close to the bone even by the standards of the
Beats. It's impressively bleak.
Especially interesting is the fact that the characters express hardly
any pity about the murder. The Lucien Carr stand-in shows only the
briefest regret while the Burroughs and Kerouac ciphers regard it as
a practical matter to be cleared up rather than a tragedy. This is
clearly an attempt at existentialism influenced by
It's fairly clumsy, but it works. Certainly, new edge is given to
Camus' fiction when it's transported into this territory of painful fact.
The book is also fascinating for the insight it gives into Kerouac
and Burroughs' development. Pretty much the first thing Kerouac has
his narrator think on when he hears about the murder was how "I used
to imagine what it would be like to kill someone and how I used to
write thousands of words to create that pattern of emotions. Now here
stood Phillip beside me, and he had actually done it."
With literary monomania like that, it's small wonder that he would
write a book that changed the world. Although they're both attempting
a hard-boiled style, the alternate chapters they write show clear
indications of the different literary styles they would develop.
Burroughs is sardonic and dry, Kerouac exuberant. Visible too are
their future obsessions. Burroughs describes an early experience with
morphine, Kerouac has his character express a desire to do some travelling …
Such intimations of future glories - combined with the simple fact
that it's a compelling read - make it feel like a worthwhile
publication rather than an exploitation. It sticks in my craw, but I
have to recommend it.
The Beat Generation, Before It Was Cool
By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, November 7, 2008
AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS
By William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac
Grove. 214 pp. $24
"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
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.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac
November 9, 2008
The Sunday Times review by Nick Rennison
In the early hours of August 14, 1944, two drunk and distressed men
quarrelled in a New York park. After a fight, the teenage Lucien Carr
stabbed David Kammerer in the chest. He was later to claim that he
had been forced into violence to defend himself against the
persistent sexual advances of the older man. Then, after tying
Kammerer's arms together and filling the pockets of his trousers with
stones, Carr rolled the bleeding body into the Hudson, which,
conveniently for the disposal of corpses, ran beside the park. A few
hours later, a friend heard the killer's confession and urged him to
surrender to the police. After a day spent drinking in the city's
bars with a different friend, Carr did just that.
The killing of Kammerer would have been long forgotten by all but the
most diligent students of the history of New York crime if it were
not for the identities of Carr's two friends. One was William S
Burroughs; the other was Jack Kerouac. Carr had been essential to the
coming together of the nascent Beat movement. Through his troubled
relationship with Kammerer he knew Burroughs. He also knew Allen
Ginsberg and Kerouac and had introduced one to the other and both to
Burroughs. The murder was deeply shocking to all three aspiring
writers. So they did what any aspiring writers would do in such
circumstances. They strove to translate it into fiction.
Ginsberg started but never finished a long story he called The
Bloodsong. Kerouac and Burroughs joined forces to write a novel, each
adopting a different narrative voice and composing alternating
chapters. The result was And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.
(The self-consciously offbeat but memorable title supposedly comes
from a news story about a catastrophic fire at a zoo that Buroughs
heard on the radio.) Publishers were unmoved by the manuscript at the
time, but now, more than 60 years later, Penguin has raised it to
immediate classic status at first publication.
It is almost impossible to come to the book without preconceptions
derived from either knowlege of the murder or of its authors' later
works. Kerouac in particular forged a career out of thinly
fictionalising real experiences and this was one of his earliest
attempts at it. Even the smallest details in the story match what is
known about the actual events. In the book, as (one assumes) in
reality, the characters mooch around New York, looking for ways to
distract themselves from the ennui and lack of direction in their
lives. They drink, smoke dope, talk about sex rather more often than
they engage in it, and sit in a succession of indistinguishable
dives, discussing Rimbaud, philosophy and French films. The
retrospective awareness that both readers and writers have of where
this is all going to end hangs heavily over the narrative. As a
novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is poor stuff. As an
insight into the formative years of the Beats, it's fascinating.