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And the Beats Were Beaten to Death by Their Acolyte

The Stop Smiling Review

(Penguin Classics)


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks
By William S. Burroughs and Jack Keroauc
(Penguin Classics)

Reviewed by Steve Finbow

There are various accounts of how this Beat novel got its title. Most parties remember overhearing a radio broadcast about a zoo catching on fire and William S. Burroughs noting down the reporter’s line: “…and the hippos were boiled in their tanks.” Whether the events occurred in St. Louis, New York City, London or Burroughs’s own drug-addled memories is not clear.

What is certain is that And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks — probably the earliest extant literary work of the Beat generation — is a novelized account of a 1944 case. David Kammerer was 25 years old in 1936 when he met Lucien Carr, who was then 11. Kammerer became obsessed with Carr, following him from place to place. Carr at last settled in New York City, where he attended classes at Columbia where he met Allen Ginsberg, and later Jack Kerouac. Kammerer, an old St. Louis friend of Burroughs, quickly fell into their orbit. In light of what came next, Carr played a dangerous game with Kammerer’s affections, teasing and rebuking the older man one moment, leaning on him for money and advice the next. One night, after Carr frustrated his advances yet again, Kammerer turned aggressive. In self-defence, Carr pulled a Boy Scout knife and stabbed him. Carr disposed of Kammerer’s corpse by tying it to rocks and rolling it into the Hudson. Later, he confessed his crime to both Kerouac and Burroughs. On Burroughs’s advice, Carr turned himself in to the police — a decision which unintentionally inconvenienced his friends when the two were picked up as accessories. Carr served two years in prison for first-degree manslaughter.

Written in the year following Kammerer’s murder, Hippos did the submission rounds before disappearing under the floorboards, into archive boxes, and from people’s memories until James Grauerholz, Burroughs’s literary executor, permitted its publication, having decided that sufficient time had passed since Carr’s death in 2005. The question before us is, is Hippos a worthy addition to the Beat canon or a necrophiliac marketing exercise?

I read this book in manuscript form 20 years ago. I didn’t think much of it then — just the buzz of reading something very few people had seen. I opened the new edition thinking that maybe my obsession with the Beats had finally ended. I started to read the book armed with my critical weapons. I finished it, sheathed my switchblade, placed my knuckledusters back in their velvet bag, and slid my steel cobra into its hiding place: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac is not that bad after all. But is it really a “classic”?

There are glimpses of future texts in this book. Burroughs’s style is as hardboiled and stripped down as it is in Junkie and Queer. Some of the chapters read like Burroughs’ early routines. There are glimpses of later Burroughs characters, such as Hamburger Mary, and sketches of NYC lowlife, hucksters, and junkies whom Burroughs would amalgamate into the Herman/Herbert Huncke character featured in Junkie. Kerouac, too, shows us where he might be heading:

“Wednesday turned out to be a beautiful day. It was one of those clear and cool June days when everything is blue and rose and turret-brown.

“I decided right then and there to go off and travel again. I felt like seeing the Pennsylvania hills again, and the scrub pines of North Carolina.”

Penguin Classics has published And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks because of the continuing literary status and selling power of Burroughs and Kerouac. Nevertheless, I will take this volume to my parents’ home, climb the ladder to the loft and deposit it in one of the many boxes comprising my Beat library. I have nearly everything ever published by and about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs: from a beaten-up, second-hand edition of Kerouac’s Big Sur (with a cover I made myself), to a copy of Cosmopolitan Greetings in which my name is in the acknowledgements, to an edition of Dear Allen: Letters to Allen Ginsberg by William S. Burroughs 1953-57 signed by both Bill and Allen with the addition of a muzzle-fire graze on the front cover — Burroughs shot it for me. Yet, how many of these books, scurried over by spiders and silverfish, will I re-read? How many stand up to critical scrutiny?

Round Two: I pull out my sawn-off Purdy, limber up my blackjack, turn the Guardian newspaper into a Millwall brick because, right here, right now, I’m taking on my literary heroes.

Let’s do Ginsberg first. Howl and Other Poems, published in 1956 by City Lights, is, along with On the Road and Naked Lunch, a seminal Beat work. The opening lines of the title poem are well known and have been ripped off and parodied by many. But how many readers know the rest of the poem? Part I can be read as a poetic version of Kerouac’s autobiographical fiction, Ginsberg mixing in real people, events, and sexual experiences; while Part II takes from Burroughs’s theories on society, his readings of Spengler and Korzybski; Part III is Ginsberg’s, the long lines prefaced with the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” addressed, as are many of his poems, to a friend or lover. The Footnote sees Ginsberg move into a territory he would claim his own: the merging of religion, breath, and sexual politics. Howl is best listened to — Ginsberg himself is best listened to — period. Of the other poems that make up this volume, America is a continuation and re-characterization of the themes in Howl, while A Supermarket in California remains Ginsberg’s best short poem. But I would argue that, apart from Howl, Kaddish, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, and the occasional short poem, Ginsberg is best remembered for his relentless attacks on America, his insistence on free speech, and his kindness and generosity. Only Howl will be read in a hundred years’ time. Allen Ginsberg was a cultural event and he will remain a cultural icon.

“Of the San Francisco Beat boys/ You were the favorite, Now they sit and rattle their bones/ And think of their blood-stoned days,” sang Natalie Merchant in “Hey, Jack Kerouac,” her 1987 homage to the Beats. And just how good are the novels Kerouac wrote about his “blood-stoned days”? I’ll mark the novels out of 10 — 10 being “gone daddy gone” descending in coolness to “strictly dullsville”. And you can forget the poetry (amateur) and the half-digested Buddhist tracts (nonsense). Here we go:

Orpheus Emerged
: 1
And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks: 2
The Town and the City: 4
On the Road: 8
Visions of Cody: 9
Pic: -5 (that’s minus 5)
Doctor Sax: 6
Maggie Cassidy: 5
The Subterraneans: 5
Tristessa: 3
Visions of Gerard: 3
Desolation Angels: 6
The Dharma Bums: 7
Big Sur: 6
Satori in Paris: 4
Vanity of Duluoz: 4

Not that great for a “major” novelist. Visions of Cody is my personal favorite, but only On the Road and The Dharma Bums would survive a literary cull. I call for a radical re-editing of all Keroauc’s work, a regularization of characters’ names, a Proustianization of his canon into one long, driven, gloopy novel of the soul.

Okay. This is where it gets dangerous — I give you El Hombre Invisible himself, Mr. William Seward Burroughs. Burroughs comes in swinging his sword stick. ‘I give you The Red Night Trilogy — three books that evoke Conrad, Greene, and Mailer! Narrative… Narrative… Narrative,’ he cries. I counter with cobra, slash, slash. ‘Yes, I agree,’ I say, ‘they’re the most readable of your novels, with fully-realized characters and plot lines. But I feel the steadying hand of Mr. Grauerholz in their construction, and the wheedling, money-grubbing paws of a certain Mr. Wylie.’ Three shuriken embed themselves in the bookshelves behind my head, as Burroughs drawls, ‘What about The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express — the cut-ups took literature into the 20th century and beyond.’ I recover my composure, take out my blowgun. The dart whistles past Bill’s fedora. ‘Yeah, and made little impact — gave us who — Kathy Acker? David Bowie? See, that’s the trouble, Bill, your cut-up novels had more influence on film and music than literature — Ballard and Moorcock might have run with yours and Gysin’s ideas but they pulled back, stuck to the linear, the readable.’ Bill pivots and pulls a snubnose .45 from a holster beneath his suit jacket. ‘Why you no-good dog-lover, The Wild Boys and Port of Saints were hallucinatory cyberpunk novels before the likes of Gibson, Sterling and Shirley dreamed of sucking on circuit-board pacifiers.’ My katana slices through air, deflecting the bullet. ‘They’re nothing but dystopian fantasies ala Burgess, Orwell and Nabokov,’ I say. ‘All you’ve done is thrown in a few homosexual sex scenes.’ Bill reaches into a trunk, pulls out a WWII-era machine gun…. Rata-tat-tat Junkie! Rat-a-tat-tat-Queer, Rat-a-tat-tat The Yage Letters! I reel back as the bullets pump into my Kevlar vest. ‘Okay, okay,’ I say. ‘I admit that Queer is an honest and well-written account of homosexual desire and The Yage Letters an early example of almost anthropological confession and experiment and, yes, yes, Junkie, Junkie is one of the best novels of its kind, not only in its detailing of drug addiction but in its hardboiled prose and its confessionary zeal.’ Bill steps forward, takes a yellow scarf from his jacket pocket, steps behind me and loops it around my neck. ‘And what about Naked Lunch, you fucking moron?’ I grab the rumaal, try to pull, but the garotte tightens. ‘The most important book of the latter half of the 20th century,’ I gasp as my carotid artery compresses, ‘The American Ulysses.’ My eyes close, my larynx crushed — my last thought: ‘A work of genius.’ Lights out.


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