BOOK REVIEW The Latest (and Earliest) From Kerouac and Burroughs

A Posthumous Pleasure

Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs

Grove Press

Nov. 1, 2008


If you laughed along with Sal Paradise in On The Road, feared the conniving Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, and saluted the iconoclastic verses of America, then you’re undeniably a Beatnik. While Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg are arguably the three most important authors of the Beat Generation, they are also our default historians of a transitional time period in the United States. Their uninhibited, jazz-inspired prose revealed a candid portrait of a class of people who embraced life in growing cities and welcomed experimentation.

Yet, the Beat Generation was always seen through the lens of its aforementioned seminal works, all three of which tipped the literary scale to extremes. This November, though, the Estate of Jack Kerouac and the William S. Burroughs Trust teamed up to release a manuscript that had gained almost legendary status amongst literary circles. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is a joint work by the two Beat heroes penned in alternating chapters one summer during the 1940s.

One may wonder why such an essential work was kept unpublished for so long. Initially, the two novelists unsuccessfully pushed the manuscript to publisher after publisher, receiving little interest in return. The novel itself, the product of its creators’ shared obsession and documentation of an actual murder, was deemed too sensational by editors. Any hope of the book being published was extinguished once the murderer himself — Lucien Carr, a real-life friend of the Beats — recognized his character in the novel, despite the use of the pseudonym ‘Philip Tourian.’ Carr prevented the book from reaching past the floorboards of Kerouac’s residence, where it was decided the manuscript would be permanently buried. Only now, after Carr’s recent death in 2005, has the original text surfaced to mainstream attention.

The early publishers who first turned the work away are not to be criticized, however. The work is not breathtaking in its use of literary devices nor is the plot innovative enough to warrant distinction. The reader’s prize, on the other hand, is an honest Kerouac and a careful Burroughs, both honing their literary style and taking risks in the Hippos manuscript. Written before either author was famous, Hippos is an unbiased and upfront sample of what preceded groundbreaking works such as On the Road. What’s more important is that the characters, events, and places in Hippos are all real. As in most works put out by the Beats, pseudonyms are used to ‘hide’ the evident identities of key players like Allen Ginsberg, David Kammerer, and the narrators themselves.

Part of what drove Kerouac and Burroughs to document their account of the events is that Carr, a young aspiring writer at the time, sought their guidance after he committed the crime. While the two offered different solutions to Carr, both were now inadvertently involved in the crime. Lucien Carr was a murderer but in Hippos, that is just as banal a fact as Mike Ryko (Kerouac’s alter-ego) being an enthusiastic drinker.

The murder itself might be sensational: a hatchet to the head, preceding a two story fall for David Kammerer, a wealthy, older man with a dangerous sexual appetite for Carr’s virility and youth. But it is not merely the murder that this novel rests upon. It is the everyday movement and interaction between a close circle of friends and acquaintances; it is the episodes in which Carr can’t decide if Kammerer is really a friend or a sexual predator; it is the life and heartbeat of 1940s New York. Above all, Hippos paints a picture of what life was like for Americans decades ago. It’s certainly a clearer portrait of an unsuspecting Kerouac and Burroughs before they became, well, Kerouac and Burroughs.