Monday, December 8, 2008

And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

Two deaths made this book possible. First, the fatal stabbing of David Kammerer in 1944, around which this novella revolves like a ghoulish carousel; then the passing in 2005 of Kammerer's attacker, Lucien Carr, which meant publication could finally go ahead.

Burroughs and Kerouac were 30 and 21 respectively when they composed And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (the surreal title alludes to a report of a fire at a zoo), writing alternate chapters under pseudonyms. Carr and Kammerer were their friends, and the events surrounding the latter's death were still fresh in their minds. A bloodstained Carr sought out both men straight after the attack, but whereas the worldly-wise Burroughs calmly advised Carr to turn himself in, Kerouac buckled under the strain. "My legs kept bending at the knee," he says, as Carr confesses all in a bar.

Nevertheless, Kerouac can barely disguise his excitement at this unexpected exposure to a real-life drama. "I used to imagine what it would be like to kill someone," he admits in a key passage. "Now here stood Phillip [Carr] beside me, and he had actually done it." Hippos shows that the Beats' genius for self-mythologising, their unwavering belief in themselves as existential heroes rather than aimless losers, set in early.

Without Carr, however, the whole Beat phenomenon might never have happened, for he not only introduced Kerouac, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to one another, he also inspired them by setting a bad example. Carr's relationship with Kammerer (14 years his senior) is reminiscent of Joe Orton's with Kenneth Halliwell, the older man introducing his protégé to literature, then panicking when it seemed he might leave. Finally, forcing his attentions on Carr in a park on New York's Upper West Side, Kammerer was rewarded with a pocket knife in the heart.

Carr served two years for manslaughter, then tried to put his past behind him, persuading his friends never to publish Hippos in his lifetime. Not that they could find a publisher. "It had no commercial possibilities," Burroughs later explained. "It wasn't sensational enough to make it . . . nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it [from] a purely literary point of view." This verdict still stands.

Neither Burroughs nor Kerouac is at his best here, but Hippos has value as a testament to their latent talent. Both men, though young, come across as natural writers with an instinct for the telling detail. Burroughs is grimly fascinated by the abuse of authority, his sarcastic, petty-minded landlord Mr Goldstein being a distant relative of the County Clerk in Naked Lunch. If anything, Hippos proves that becoming a junkie was the making of Burroughs, pulling his unique vision into focus.

Kerouac's best set-piece is his description of the bizarre day he spent with Carr - watching The Four Feathers and standing in silent contemplation of Modigliani's portrait of Cocteau at MoMA - before they parted and Carr confessed to the police. Kerouac also brings alive the exotic, homoerotic allure of the waterfront and a life at sea, as he and Carr plan to sign on as seamen and reach Paris in time for the liberation. "Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means, not so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves," said John Clellon Holmes, trying to define the Beat generation in the late 1950s. Hippos, with wartime New York as its setting, has that sustained, nervous tension and sense of impending doom.


saamvisual said...

Ian Pindar.

1. You are posting at too early in the morning.
2. I was reading the Guardian a day late (yesterday evening) when I saw your name on a review of something or other and it hit me that I was in the year below you at Fleetwood.
3. At least - that's what I thought after a search and seeing the face on this blog. Weird - I haven't thought of you for 24/25 years. I remember being extremely envious of your drawings in Mr Ross' art class and (again) envious that Mr Coy seemed to like you more than me. But hey that is old news.
4. You might not remember me, but at least it was worth responding to the name that I remember so strangely clearly from so long ago.

Anyways - I hope you are well and it seems that you are having a productive time of it.

Best wishes

Jason Ramasami

PS I have a fairly varied history, but my current day-job is teaching RE.

youtube channel

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exploring beliefs

saamvisual said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
saamvisual said...

Sorry - the last post seems to have been strangely repeated.