And the Hippos Were
Boiled in Their Tanks

By Jack Kerouac

Related stories

and William S. Burroughs

Afterword by James W. Grauerholz

Grove Press. 214 pp. $24.


Reviewed by Michael Harrington


It all started with football.

Jack Kerouac was a high school gridiron and track star in Lowell, Mass., though he also was a daydreamy artist who hung with a group of self-styled literati.

Kerouac's football skills got him into Columbia University in 1940. But he broke his leg in practice, argued with the coach, and eventually left.

He served in the wartime merchant marine while writing and living on the fringes of the university scene with his girlfriend Edie Parker, a free-living society girl. Through Edie, he met a teenager from St. Louis named Lucien Carr, a sullen and charismatic Columbia student obsessed with Rimbaud.

Carr introduced Kerouac to his teenaged classmate Allen Ginsberg, and also to two friends from St. Louis, both in their 30s. The first was David Kammerer, who had become infatuated with Carr as a Boy Scout troop master and had followed him to New York. Carr was reluctantly inseparable from Kammerer, but they were prone to Dadaist stunts such as chewing up drinking glasses.

The other man was William S. Burroughs, a scion of the Burroughs Adding Machine family who was living off a monthly stipend from his parents. He masked insecurities over past mental difficulties and a closeted homosexuality with a laconic pose of hard-boiled hyper-intellectualism and a devout interest in the Times Square demimonde of drug fiends and petty thieves.

Kerouac was friendly with Kammerer, but he was fascinated by Burroughs, who introduced him to Oswald Spengler and psychoanalysis. They shared an interest in Raymond Chandler's detective fiction and would act out scenes from his stories.

In the summer of 1944, a drunken Carr stabbed Kammerer to death, supposedly after one pass too many. He sought help from Kerouac (who helped him dispose of the knife) and Burroughs (who told him to get a good lawyer).

Carr was soon arrested. Kerouac and Burroughs were questioned and briefly jailed, but they avoided serious legal problems over the incident. After a sensational trial, Carr was sent to a reformatory, where he served a few years. After his release, he became a journalist and had a long and distinguished career at UPI.

Kerouac and Burroughs decided to collaborate on a novel about the murder,

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

, in which they told the story in alternating chapters. They titled the work after a hurried radio news report of a zoo fire. After they became famous as Beat writers, the unpublished work was often cited in the various biographies of the two, but it is only now being published.

It's not bad as a novel, but it's mostly a literary curiosity by two authors who went on to better things. The events leading up to the murder are slightly disguised, but for those familiar with the Beats, the real people careening around Manhattan are easy to see behind the faux details.

This is a practice work, overstuffed with characters and dwelling on what would have then been sensational and shocking: marijuana, lesbians, small-time criminals, loose college girls, bar fights. It's too slow-moving to be true noir, too stilted to be an existential exploration. The murder is almost incidental to the recitation of bohemian doings leading up to the killing (both writers had recently given police statements, after all, and perhaps seen the literary value in the genre).

Burroughs' sections are written in the detached voice made familiar by his later work, presenting the city as an elemental place full of violent events and lost people. His character, Dennison, is urbane and shady, a Clifton Webb type who gladly lends a pal a sap to make some money rolling drunks and sets up an arson in the same tone he uses to make dinner reservations. A sample of his voice: "When I got back to my apartment it was too early to go to bed. I . . . played a few games of solitaire and decided to take morphine, which I hadn't done in several weeks."

Kerouac's sections are given to romantic descriptions of the city and people (a merchant seaman has "a big red beard and Christ-like eyes") and spiritual philosophy. People say things such as "The ultimate society has to be the completely artistic society. Each of these artist-citizens must, during the course of his lifetime, complete his own spiritual circle."

His alter-ego Mike Ryko would be played by John Garfield, perhaps - sensitive but tough:

". . . a short stocky waiter came up to me and said, 'Are you a wise guy?'

" 'Sure,' I said. It looked like there would be a fight."

All of this was later refined by Kerouac in his seminal work

On the Road

and others, and by Burroughs in

Naked Lunch

.

But what's apparent here in this portrait of the nascent Beat scene is that they knew they were onto something.

As such, it's a fascinating look at two important writers working out their early style.

Contact Inquirer staff writer Michael Harrington at 215-854-2816 or mharrington@phillynews.com.