By Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
Published November 1, 2008
Reviewed June 8, 2009
The unpublished, undiscovered work will forever hold a special place in the hearts of literary fans: the idea that in some forgotten wooden chest, some rusted-shut safe deposit box or broken desk drawer sits a masterpiece from their favorite author. It’s this spirit that drives periodic efforts to track down the rumored complete manuscript of Truman Capote’s “Answered Prayers” and what keeps scholars gainfully employed in going through the estates of deceased authors to see what they can turn up.
“And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks” was until recently one of these mysterious works, a collaboration between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs before the two secured their roles as the respective patron saints of vagabonds and drug addicts. Rejected by publishers at the time, yet long discussed amongst Beat scholars and fans, the original manuscript remained in storage and has now only seen publication after both writers are dead. It’s a historical curiosity, and one that provides an interesting look into how these two writers began their craft.
Like a majority of Burroughs and Kerouac’s work, “And the Hippos” is based on a true story, one of the darker moments in the Beat Generation’s history. In 1944 Lucien Carr, a Columbia student responsible for introducing Burroughs, Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to each other, murdered an older man named David Kammerer. Kammerer, a childhood friend of Burroughs, had been pursuing Carr sexually for years, growing more possessive and eventually pushing Carr to fatally stab him in self-defense. While he only served two years it was a sobering moment for the nascent Beats: both Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses and Burroughs’ opium habit picked up shortly afterwards.
The collaboration between Burroughs and Kerouac takes the form of each man writing alternating first-person chapters sharing their side of the story, under the respective pseudonyms of bartender Will Dennison and merchant seaman Mike Ryko. Burroughs’ chapters focus chiefly on Ramsey Allen (Kammerer’s doppleganger) and his mad attraction to Philip Tourian (Carr), while Kerouac’s chapters feature Ryko and Tourian wandering New York trying to get money and dreaming of sailing to France. The co-authorship never gets in the way of readability, and also allows for some comparison of style: Kerouac is all about energy and flow, while Burroughs takes a dry careful look at events.
And that comparison is one of the main reasons to view “And The Hippos.” As the first book written by either of the two men, it is full of clues to their developing voices. Kerouac’s chapters are fast-paced, filled with tales of drinking and women and constantly moving from one location to another. Even then he was in love with the run-on sentence, pouring out all the details he can get for fear he’ll miss an experience. His last line (“I walked toward Columbus Circle, where two big trucks went by that made me want to travel far,”) is borderline prophetic, foreshadowing the wanderlust of “On the Road.”
Burroughs, by contrast, is less a player in the story than an observer, with Dennison chiefly in his apartment or loaning money for Ryko and Tourian to keep their energy going. He looks on the world with distrust, seeing hostile arguments all over America and idly finding narratives during morphine experimentation – a thought process that matured easily into “Junky.” We even get a glimpse of his later surrealist word salad in the title, a phrase he fixated on after overhearing it during a news broadcast on a circus fire and could easily be a “Naked Lunch” routine.
But while the book does offer glimpses of what Kerouac and Burroughs would achieve, it doesn’t hold up as well when authorship is taken out of consideration. At its core, the book is simply a reiteration of a few days that happened to have a dramatic climax, and a climax neither of the narrators were present for. There’s no sense that something important is being looked at, something new is being said or that a destination is being reached – it’s just a reiteration of an event, exaggerated for effect and over when it’s over. In his later years Burroughs himself was dismissive of the book as “not a distinguished work,” and at several points it’s hard not to agree with the many publishers who originally turned it down.
Of course, that is a factor that often comes into play with unpublished works: the mystery is more interesting than the final discovery. “And the Hippos” certainly has a role in the Beat Generation canon and it’s a historical curiosity to its fans, but there are a wide variety of titles that newcomers would be better served to read first (“Junky” and “On the Road” are the most relevant). It’s a prototype work, not to be taken as a polished work but an example of how it all began.