And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
For average readers
For fans of the Beats
I just finished reading And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Overall, the book read like most books by these two authors. It was penned in 1945, long before either had become famous. But when I read it, I did not know this. I took it simply as another text by the beat authors.
The story alternates, with Burroughs writing as Will Dennison and Kerouac writing as Mike Ryko. I listened to it on audiobook, so I didn’t have the benefit of flipping back to check this fact. Instead, it became obvious as the story moved along.
All Burroughs’s chapters had the character mostly in his apartment, sardonically commenting on the lunacy of the other characters. Felt like typical Burroughs. There’s even a scene of him shooting up. In contrast, Kerouac’s chapters were manic and misdirected, a pale shadow of what On the Road would become. Ryko goes to a bar, drinks, then another bar, drinks, then back to someone’s apartment, and drinks. The only semblance of his plot was an attempt to join the merchant marine and ship out to France (where he and Phillip Tourian wanted to jump ship and run to Paris).
The title was apt, because I knew that Mike and Phillip would never make it to their ship. They would be “boiled” just like the hippos. The title (according to the afterword) was inspired by a random snatch of a radio broadcast overheard by Burroughs and Kerouac. Kerouac said that Bill always remembered weird things like this. Another theory, which was mine until I read the afterword, was that it came from a cut up.
I found the book a little more interesting because I’m a big Beat fan. If you’re not, then you’ll probably be bored by the text, which rambles. The only interesting bit is the relationship between Phillip Tourian and a much older man named Ramsay Allen or just Al. Al met Phillip when the boy was 12 and he was somewhere in his 40s. He then devoted his life to following the young man (then somewhere in his 20s) in hopes that Phillip might reciprocate his love.
Al is painted as pathetic, trying once to sneak into Phillip’s apartment and just stand near him till dawn. Often, the girlfriends didn’t like Al, and he had to walk behind the group of friends like a stray dog.
The story ends abruptly. One minute we see Al lounging around an apartment with Ryko and Phillip and the next Phillip is ringing Dennison’s buzzer to announce, “I just killed Al and threw the body off a warehouse.” It then shows Phillip and Ryko meander through several more bars until they finally part, and Phillip turns himself in.
Only in the afterword did I learn that this was based on a real murder in 1945. Phillip Tourian was Lucien Carr and Al was David Kammerer. The murder made big headlines at the time. Lucian Carr apparently introduced the three key Beats together (Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsburg).
Kerouac and Burroughs wanted to try their hand at the story and wrote the fictional version of tragedy. (Carr, obviously, was against it). They shopped it around to several publishers. All passes. Kerouac, reportedly, said that the book wasn’t sensational enough for the popular fiction of the time or well written enough for the literary market. He then sat on the book for years, often alluding to the Hippos text like it was some kind of Holy Grail.
The afterword also seems to treat this book like the second coming. Its publication was blocked by Carr’s estate until all the principals died. Honestly, the novel’s not bad, but not that good either. Even Kerouac admitted that it didn’t make press at the time.