A Beatnik Stew: Kerouac & Burroughs

Posted on February 13, 2009

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By Jonathan Woods

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel written in 1944, by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, has at last found the light of day. Presented in alternating chapters narrated by Will Dennison [written by Burroughs] and Mike Ryko [written by Kerouac], the story follows a rootless group of characters adrift in New York City’s demimonde in the last year of WWII.

In the opening scene we’re introduced to the major players sitting around an apartment smoking schwag. One of the characters eats broken glass. Another character brings the diner a plate of old razor blades. Your typical day in coolsville.

Dennison, Burroughs’ stand-in, is already corrupt, a junky and two-bit hoodlum. At one point he acts as the go-between for an arson job. There is definitely some Dashiell Hammett going on here. Kerouac’s Ryko is still an innocent, intent upon shipping out on a merchant ship bound for war torn Europe. Here’s Ryko posturing as a Whitman-esque layabout:

We walked back to Washington Square and sat on a bench in the shade. I got tired of that so I sat down on the grass and started chewing a twig. I was thinking about the books I would bring for this trip and what a time Phil and I would have in some foreign port.

The story focuses on the growing obsession by 40-ish, gray haired Ramsey Allen with the look of a down-at-the-heels actor for the petulant and exotic 17-year-old bisexual, Phillip Tourian. This fecund fermenting hothouse relationship ultimately leads in the final pages to Al’s murder. According to an Afterword by Burroughs’ executor James Grauerholz, the inspiration for the novel was a lurid gay affair between Lucian Carr IV and David Eames Kammerer, which ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer and pushing his body into the Hudson River. Front-page tabloid news with a special meaning for Kerouac and Burroughs who were friends of Carr’s.

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The tale moves effortlessly through the streets, bars, hash-joints, dives, automats, union halls, apartments, bedrooms, hallways and rooftops of bohemian 1944 New York. Drinking, fucking, not-fucking, talking endless bullshit, shooting up, carousing, eating and dope-smoking ensue. Reading Hippos, I was transported to Paul Mazursky‘s celluloid portrayal of 1950s hipness, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, which I immediately re-watched on DVD. Great movie.

In no time I was overwhelmed by a delicious, almost sexual, nostalgia for my own student days in Montreal. Leonard Cohen drinking at the Boiler Room on Crescent. Cool cat Negroes playing jazz in a downstairs club called The Black Bottom, or blues at the Esquire Show Bar. The transvestite cabaret on Sherbrooke Street where I always stopped to look at the pictures but never went upstairs. The party where the host spiked the punch with acid. Winters to freeze your ass off. A book that transports you into orgasms of nostalgia has got to be worth reading.

The flat, Vernacular (a term coined by Cyril Connolly) prose of Hippos is not markedly different from that in Junky or Queer, written in the years following, as Burroughs made his way from NYC to N.O. to the Rio Grande valley of Texas, on to Mexico City and finally the jungles of Ecuador in search of the telepathic drug Yage. Those two autobiographical narratives are far more intimate than Hippos, achieved through Burroughs insertion of himself as the first person narrator Bill Lee. Burroughs is the junky, faggot hustler of Junky and Queer. At the same time these later books show a far darker vision than Hippos.

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And surprise, surprise, Queer tells the story of a gay relationship almost identical to the one that unfolds in Hippos. But this time Burroughs is not Dennison the outside observer but, as Bill Lee, the relentless pursuer of the bisexual drifter Allerton. In this re-play we are intimately inside Lee’s head. The end does not come down to murder as in Hippos. Allerton, the object of Lee’s affections in Queer, just disappears, drifting off into some other life.

Allerton is a nearly invisible nonentity while Phillip Tourian, the spawn of a drug dealer father and a lesbian mother with a degree from Smith College, is an exotic flower from a poem by Charles Baudelaire. He “…is seventeen years old, half Turkish and half American… Curly black hair falls over his forehead, his skin is very pale, and he has green eyes.”

There is a lightness and laissez-faire-ness, even innocence, in Hippos that is lost in Burroughs’ later work. Hippos is also very funny. Here is Burroughs’ put down of the uptown literary scene: “I was reading a story in the New Yorker. Something about two women in Schrafft’s.”

Kerouac waxes eloquently proletarian:

We asked directions for getting back to New York the fastest way and were told to take the ferry. We dropped our bags at our feet and leaned on the rail of the ferry. It moved away from the slip and headed for Manhattan, shimmering across the river. Over to our left we saw what was causing all the smoke in Hoboken: a big warehouse and a merchant ship flying the Norwegian flag were on fire…The firemen were all over the place with their little toy hoses and squirts of water.

And later:

In the bar I took a table in the corner and ordered a bottle of Schlitz beer. The waiter brought it and set in down on the white table-cloth. He didn’t like the way I was dressed, and his manner was a bit indulgent…

I got hungry after a while, so I ordered a hamburger steak dinner. The waiter brought over the silverware and a clean white napkin and a glass of water. The place had that brown east-side light in it, like a rathskeller.

Burroughs gives us police brutality:

Then one of the detectives went over and called the guy a prick and told him to get the hell out of the bar.

The guy said, “Who are you?”

One of the cops gave him a shove and a second cop gave him another shove,… Then they pinned him against the wall and began slugging him methodically. They must have hit him thirty times and the guy didn’t even raise his hands.

And Dennison shooting up morphine:

I held the spoon over the alcohol lamp until the tablets were completely dissolved. I let the solution cool, then sucked it up into the hypodermic…and started looking for a vein on my arm. After a while I found one and the needle slid in, the blood came up, and I let it suck back in. Almost immediately, complete relaxation spread over me.

While Hippos does not rise to the in-orbit brilliance of the last third of Junky, it is a fast and fascinating story written in vivid though unadorned prose. Its Vernacular style presents a portrait of hipster life in New York that has a realness to it that blasts to smithereens Mandarin attempts, like Joseph O’Neill‘s recent Netherland, to plumb New York City’s dark side. In a sense Hippos is the missing first volume of Burroughs’ dark trilogy, whose other volumes are Junky and Queer. Read all three.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs
Penguin Books
224 Pages

Junky
William S. Burroughs
Penguin Classics
208 Pages

Queer
William S. Burroughs
Picador Books
128 Pages

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Jonathan Woods is a writer living in Dallas, Texas. When not writing he works part time at a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.

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Posted in: Reading