Wednesday, 6 January 2016

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945)

I walked right past this one when I first saw it in the used book store. I'd heard the title from it being listed amongst a vague group of Burroughs' lesser works and related oddities, but had never really considered it as something which would interest me, which is partially due to the involvement of Kerouac. I have nothing against Kerouac, but neither have I ever felt a strong desire to read anything he wrote, which is possibly an adverse reaction to people who don't really know me telling me to read On the Road because it's just the sort of thing I would like. Such recommendations further foster my impression of Kerouac as a sort of written equivalent of Jim Morrison - great singles and a decent voice, but I probably wouldn't want a whole album, and anyone who seriously regards all that frowning and glowering as indicative of something profound is probably an idiot.

Anyway, I bought it on my second visit to said book store because I realised that I would have been pissed off had I gone back to the rarities shelf and seen that someone else had beat me to it; and I'm glad I did because it's a fascinating curio, you might almost say Burroughs' first novel. In 1944, he and Kerouac were unpublished writers, or aspiring writers, hanging around together, drinking beer, taking on the occasional dead end job and generally just drifting. When one of their loose assemblage of friends murdered another, they decided to write a novel about it, each fictionalising the tale in alternate chapters told from his own point of view. It's fascinating as a period piece of life amongst not quite Bohemian types in New York as the second world war grumbled towards its conclusion across the other side of the horizon, and it's decent as a novel in its own right, even beyond the element of curiosity.

I gather both Kerouac and Burroughs had agreed to stick to a fairly basic, stripped down form of narrative so as to maintain a certain consistency; and although I'm not familiar with Kerouac, Burroughs' voice is already beginning to take shape:

Later, when we were sitting in Riker's at the counter eating eggs, Ryko told me that Betty-Lou had taken a great dislike to Philip.

'There's something rotten about him,' she had said. 'He has the smell of death about him.'

'That's one for the book all right,' I said.

The title derives from a news report coming over the radio during a conversation between Kerouac and others, with alternate lines of unrelated dialogue mashed together in a way which prefigures Burroughs' later use of cut-up technique - which probably indicates the intimacy of the collaboration given that it isn't Burroughs writing it in this instance.

Most of the detail of daily life falls somewhere between Hemingway and Bukowski, albeit a Bukowski who hangs out with poets or occasionally considers paintings by Modigliani. It is vivid and well-paced, with Kerouac's efforts to find work on a ship and travel to Europe providing a backbone of narrative across which is framed the complicated relationship of David Kammerer and Lucien Carr, leading to the murder of the latter by the former. An odd note is struck by the defining of the Kammerer-Carr relationship as homosexual in contrast to whatever else the other characters have going on, which isn't really given a name beyond a heterosexual default suggested by occasional use of the term fag as applied to David Kammerer, or Ramsay Allen as he is named in the novel. Initially some of this read a little like self-loathing on the part of the authors - at least to me - but given that neither of them were otherwise particularly reticent regarding expression of their respective sexual preferences, I'm guessing they simply may have felt it prudent to tone things down to some extent in hope of getting published; and it is clear that this was written in hope of publication, but then forgotten following a series of rejections.

Additionally there seems to be a theme tantamount to the random, meaningless interactions of wild animals gathered at a waterhole, and the occasional frictions which might arise: the hippos boiling in their tanks, one lion killing another over a piece of meat, or Lucien braining the obsessive David before pushing him from the top of a tall building. I suppose that might be the existential element of the narrative, as promised by James Grauerholz in the afterword.

The fact of this remaining unpublished for over half a century says more about the publishing industry than the formative talents of its authors, although I suppose had it seen print they might both have ended up on very different paths.

... and it's great, by the way - seeing as I haven't actually yet said that out loud; which means I should probably read me some Kerouac.

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