Saturday, January 31, 2009

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks - Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is the great lost book based upon the event that provided the stimulus to launch the careers of the most influential American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, the Beats. Anyone who is a fan of the Beats and is aware of the Paris Review interview features on their website may have noticed that this book is mentioned in both Burroughs's and Kerouac's interview with that esteemed publication. At first it seems like a novelty to me--a collaboration between WSB and JK--it might be interesting but it couldn't be anywhere near as great as the books they were famous for. My sister gave it to me for Christmas, and I was excited to read it, but I was more eager to read The Magic Mountain (since I knew it would take a while). After I began it, I almost didn't want to read it because I was enjoying it so much and wanted to savor every single one of its 200 pages.

It is a fast-paced read and it is quite different from any books by either author. They alternate (pretty much) from chapter to chapter, with two different narrators--Will Dennison (for Burroughs) and Mike Ryko (for Kerouac). They do keep with their habit of barely fictionalizing their work. But this was written in 1944 or 1945, when Kerouac was only 23 and Burroughs was just 30. The two of them would not become famous for twelve or more years. Their styles are not quite exactly what they would become--but they are not that far off. Kerouac's style is not as "poetic" as it would later be, and is more imitative of Burroughs dry, stark, noir-style diction, which is not far off from Queer or Junky. Forced to pick between the two writers in this text, I would lean in the direction of Burroughs. His chapters seem slightly more precise--but that is not a dig at Kerouac. On the whole, this is a truly excellent novel that demands to be read along with all of the other classic Beat Generation books like Naked Lunch, Queer, On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Howl.

The story is a thinly-veiled account of the story about Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, who are named Phillip Tourian and Ramsey Allen (called Al throughout the book). Tourian is 17 and Al is 40 or so and smitten with him. This is not really that far off from Queer. There are not as many prevalent drug themes, and the setting is New York City, mostly around Greenwich Village. Tourian is about to join the Merchant Marines with Mike Ryko, but certain things seem to keep getting in their way of shipping out. Meanwhile, Al hangs out with Will Dennison, Mike Ryko, Phil, a few girls named Barbara (Phil's girlfriend), Janie (Mike's girlfriend), and Agnes. Their parties are very much in the same vein as those frequently described by Kerouac in his books. Eventually, something very serious happens--more serious than anything in any of the other books. The proximity that Kerouac and Burroughs had to this event makes for a truly shocking tale, and it is not hard to understand why they wrote about this scenario so often.

The afterword by James Grauerholz is an excellent piece of literary biography. That will explain everything about this book that you need to know, but you should read the book first. Just trust me--it's a significant work of art that hasn't seen the light of day due to very serious issues of privacy and public image. More shocking and to the point--Grauerholz wrote the afterword in June of 2008--only 8 months ago! I had just finished my post on Desolation Angels on this very blog and was about to dip into Buddenbrooks! So, along with Snuff and How Fiction Works and Dead Boys, ATHWBITT is one of my most "immediate" reviews on this blog, purely by chance.

I don't want to find any quotations to give a sense of the style. Most of this book is dialogue and eschews long-winded description or poetic diversions. You just have to trust me, this book is a fantastic document. If anything, it just goes to show how work that is rejected for publication can hold great, truly significant, value. I feel like this book was rejected more for its at times hardcore language (though it has nothing on Naked Lunch, for sure!) than its lack of literary merit. Just another reason to hate the publishing industry for going after stuff that "works" and "sells" when there are much more important books being written that don't "deserve" to see the light of day because the public at large (generally held to be, ahem, a bit closed-minded about certain matters) will not provide a profitable enough audience. Excuse me while I go puke with that thought in my mind.


Deep Waste said...


Thanks for the comment...I don't think it has to do with location at all, Skyscraper's publisher actually lives in Chicago (the editor is from upstate). I actually forget how I got hooked up with them, but usually if you have any sort of writing sample you can get a gig writing for a zine like Skyscraper or Dusted or Pop Matters, etc. etc...especially since they don't pay. Have you ever applied to write for Chicagoist? I worked at Austinist for two years; they didn't pay either but I had a great time, went to lots of parties and met a shitload of people (the sites are run by Gawker fyi).

p.s. how's the novel coming?

JK said...

Thanks for the tips Matt. As I said I wanted to go to SXSW with a press pass, and hopefully one day will be able to. I will look into Chicagoist.

The novel is in the query stage. I may write a long post one day not too far off about how I will soon abandon all of my literary ambitions. It's just too hard to get noticed and too hard to get anyone to believe in you and too hard to get anyone interested in reading (or, cough, buying) your book. That said I would love for you to read it if you are interested--I could e-mail it as an attachment. It's 185 pages or so. If you have access to a printer it can be printed in four different sections so it isn't too noticeable at work.

Deep Waste said...

hmm unfortunately I don't have time to even finish a magazine these days, but send me an email We should talk about this abandoning ambitions thing.