'Boiled': A long-lost Beatnik mystery bubbles up
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
In 1945, two unknown and unpublished writers Jack Kerouac and
William S. Burroughs collaborated on a novel based on a real-life
New York murder committed by a friend.
Initially rejected by publishers, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their
Tanks (Grove, $24) finally is being released today, many decades
after Kerouac and Burroughs became founding fathers of the Beat Generation.
"It's no long-lost masterpiece," says James Grauerholz, its editor
and executor for Burroughs, who died in 1997. "But it should appeal
to fans of the works and lives of both writers."
By more than a decade, it predates the books that made its authors
famous: Kerouac's On the Road in 1957 and Burroughs' Naked Lunch in 1959.
Its back story may be more interesting than the novel itself, which
features alternating chapters by Burroughs and Kerouac, who died in 1969.
It was inspired by a sensational 1944 murder involving a friend of
Kerouac and Burroughs: Lucien Carr, a promising 19-year-old freshman
at Columbia University.
It was Carr who introduced another Columbia freshman, the future poet
Allen Ginsberg, to Kerouac, then 22. Carr also introduced Ginsberg
and Kerouac to Burroughs, who was 30. He, in turn, introduced them to
the effects of injecting morphine.
Carr had an older admirer, David Kammerer, a former teacher who
fawned over him and made sexual advances. By some accounts, Carr
didn't mind, at least for a while.
But shortly before dawn on Aug. 14, 1944, Kammerer and Carr got into
a drunken fight. As Carr later confessed, he stabbed Kammerer with a
Boy Scout knife and dumped his body into the Hudson River.
He first admitted the crime to Kerouac and Burroughs, who were
briefly held by police as material witnesses. After a
headline-grabbing trial, Carr served two years in a reformatory.
He died in 2005 after 47 years as an editor at United Press
International. One of his three sons is novelist Caleb Carr (The
Alienist). He remained friends with Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg,
whose own novel about the murder was abandoned after a dean at
Columbia called it "smutty."
Carr valued his privacy. When Ginsberg's breakthrough poem, Howl, was
published in 1956, it was dedicated to Carr until he asked to have
his name omitted in future editions.
The existence of Hippos was known to Beat scholars and biographers.
Kerouac rewrote parts of it in his 1967 memoir/novel Vanity of
Dulouz. An excerpt appeared in Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs
Reader in 1999.
But Grauerholz notes in his afterword to Hippos that after Burroughs
became famous, he promised Carr the novel wouldn't be published until
after Carr's death.
It's only 184 pages and doesn't get to the murder until page 160. Its
characters spend much time scrounging for money, drinks and drugs.
It's very much a period piece. It uses the words "queer" and "fag" a
lot. The Kerouac-like narrator says, "I like the Negroes, but maybe
I'm prejudiced because I know so many of them."
The title comes from a scene by Burroughs in which a radio
newscaster, describing a circus fire, says, "And the hippos were
boiled to death in their tanks." Burroughs adds, "He gave these
details with the unctuous relish characteristic of radio announcers."
The authors contended it was an actual newscast. But Grauerholz says
it's more likely Burroughs' "improvisation" was triggered by a 1944
circus fire in Hartford, Conn., in which 165 people died, but there
were no hippos to boil.
When a Real-Life Killing Sent Two Future Beats in Search of Their Voices
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: November 10, 2008
The best thing about this collaboration between Jack Kerouac and
William S. Burroughs is its gruesomely comic title: "And the Hippos
Were Boiled in Their Tanks," a phrase the two writers said they once
heard on a radio broadcast about a circus fire.
The novel itself, a sort of murder mystery written in 1945 when the
authors were unpublished and unknown, is a flimsy piece of work
repetitious, flat-footed and quite devoid of any of the distinctive
gifts each writer would go on to develop on his own.
The two authors take turns telling their story in alternating
chapters. Kerouac, writing in the persona of Mike Ryko, tends to
sound like ersatz Henry Miller without the sex or fake Hemingway
without a war ("There was a long orange slant in the street and
Central Park was all fragrant and cool and green-dark"); his chapters
possess none of the electric spontaneity of "On the Road," none of
the stream-of-consciousness immediacy of his later work.
Burroughs, writing as Will Dennison, serves up passages that feel
more like imitation Cain or Spillane: semi-hardboiled prose with
flashes of Burroughs's famous nihilism but none of the experimental
discontinuities and jump-cuts of "Naked Lunch." In fact, both writers
lean toward a plodding, highly linear, blow-by-blow style here that
reads like elaborate stage directions: they describe every tiny
little thing their characters do, from pouring a drink to walking out
of a room to climbing some stairs, from ordering eggs in a restaurant
to sending them back for being underdone to eating the new ones
delivered by the waitress.
The plot of "Hippos" stems from a much discussed real-life killing
involving two men who were friends of both Burroughs and Kerouac. As
James W. Grauerholz, Burroughs's literary executor, explains in an
afterword: "The enmeshed relationship between Lucien Carr IV and
David Eames Kammerer began in St. Louis, Mo., in 1936, when Lucien
was 11 and Dave was 25. Eight years, five states, four prep schools
and two colleges later, that connection was grown too intense, those
emotions too feverish."
In the predawn hours of Aug. 14, 1944, in Riverside Park in
Manhattan, Carr stabbed Kammerer with his Boy Scout knife, then
rolled his body into the Hudson River. Burroughs and Kerouac were
among the first people Carr confessed to; he later turned himself in
and was charged with second degree murder.
As described by Mr. Grauerholz, Carr's lawyers painted a picture of
an older homosexual harassing a younger man, who had to "defend his
honor" with violence. The Carr-Kammerer story fascinated the writers'
circle, and several contemporaries, including Allen Ginsberg, would
try their hand at telling the story.
In "Hippos" Burroughs and Kerouac lay out a fictionalized account of
the days and weeks leading up to the killing. Carr is called Phillip
Tourian here, and Kammerer is Ramsay Allen. While Allen drones on and
on to Dennison about Tourian, Tourian tells Ryko that he wants to
escape from the suffocating Allen and suggests that he and Ryko ship
out with the merchant marine. They make several efforts to get on a
boat to France but are repeatedly thwarted for a variety of reasons,
like not having the right stamp on their union cards or getting into
an argument with another sailor.
Meanwhile, all the characters spend a lot of time hanging out in bars
and restaurants and friends' apartments, complaining about their lack
of money and putting on artistic airs, as if they were a bunch of
French existentialists. Tourian does stupid party tricks like taking
a bite out of a cocktail glass, chewing it up and washing it down
with some water. Allen tries to spy on the object of his affection
while he is sleeping. Ryko fights and makes up with his girlfriend,
Janie, who wants to get married. And Dennison shoots himself up with morphine.
None of these one-dimensional slackers are remotely interesting as
individuals, but together they give the reader a sense of the seedy,
artsy world Kerouac and Burroughs inhabited in New York during the
war years. And so these, really, are the only reasons to read this
undistinguished book: for the period picture it provides of the city
think of Billy Wilder's "Lost Weekend" crossed with Edward Hopper's
"Nighthawks" and for the semi-autobiographical glimpses it offers
of the two writers before they found their voices and became bohemian
AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS
By Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
214 pages. Grove Press. $24.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
Review by Mark Ford
November 10 2008
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
By William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac
Penguin Classics £20, 224 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16
During his freshman year at Columbia University (1943-1944), Lucien
Carr IV, scion of wealthy St Louis parents, introduced Allen
Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs to each other. Carr had
met Burroughs through Dave Kammerer, who had attended the same St
Louis school as Burroughs. Kammerer was 14 years older than the
dashing Carr and had long nurtured an obsessive, unrequited passion for him.
In the early hours of August 14 1944, a drunken squabble between the
two in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side ended in Carr stabbing
Kammerer twice in the chest with a knife. Kammerer passed out; Carr
bound his admirer's arms together with shoelaces, put rocks in his
pockets and rolled his body into the Hudson River to drown.
It's a story with which every Beat aficionado is familiar. The
blood-stained murderer called first on Burroughs, who advised him to
get a good lawyer, and then on Kerouac, with whom he spent the rest
of the day, revolving Carr's options. That evening he confessed to
his mother, and the following morning to the district attorney. On
August 16 Kammerer's body was dragged from the Hudson River at West
In the wake of Carr's sentence to a maximum of 10 years in a
detention centre in Elmira (he served only two), Kerouac (then 22)
and Burroughs (30) decided to collaborate on a fictional account of
the tragic imbroglio. Burroughs assumed the persona of Will Dennison,
a bartender who works on the side for a detective agency, and Kerouac
that of Mike Ryko, a merchant marine drifting and drinking while
waiting to ship out.
The novel was composed in alternating chapters at great speed, typed
up by Kerouac, and dispatched to New York publishers in March 1945.
None were interested, and Carr, eager on his release to put the past
behind him, did all he could to prevent his Beat friends publicising
his crime he ended up as a successful journalist and family man.
Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City, includes a version of
the story, as does his last, Vanity of Duluoz. But Hippos its title
was supposedly taken from a radio news item about a fire in a zoo
had to wait until the death of Carr three years ago to be published.
Penguin Classics has made a beautiful book of it but the novel itself
is unlikely to achieve classic status. Both fledgling authors labour
heavily under the influence of Hemingway; their elliptical,
hard-boiled descriptions of the gang's drinking, scrounging,
quarrelling and drug-taking don't really amount to much. Only the
obsession of Ramsay Allen for the gorgeous Phillip Tourian ("the kind
of boy literary fags write sonnets to") interrupts the general
aimlessness of their lives.
The best passages are those by Kerouac who relates Ryko's and
Tourian's visits to the National Maritime Union Hall in quest of
work. Their plan to jump ship in France and work their way to Paris
doesn't come off but they go to lots of French movies, and the book
is perhaps best read as an uncertain homage to existentialism. In the
mid-1940s New York was on the threshold of becoming the artistic
capital of the western world but here its would-be bohemians seem
pale shadows of enfants terribles such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, to
whom they refer reverently. In this Hippos resembles Saul Bellow's
first novel, Dangling Man (1944), with its similar existential
concerns: both reveal what this generation of American novelists had
to reject to achieve their breakthrough visions of America in classic
novels of the 1950s such as The Adventures of Augie March, Naked
Lunch and On the Road.
Mark Ford is professor of English at University College London