And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
And the Hippos Were Boiled in their tanks is the title of a mystery novel co-authored by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The work was inspired by a real-life incident involving two friends of the authors: the murder of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr, taking place on August 13th, 1944. Although the book was written not long after the reported events, it remained unpublished until 2008.
The year is 1944 when a group of guys meet for the first time within the walls of Columbia University. It seems to be like any other meeting, but it’s one destined to mark a turning point in the history of literature: those young men are the pens of the Beat Generation. Among them are Kerouac, 22 years old and recently landed at Columbia thanks to an athletic scholarship, the 18-year-old freshman Ginsberg, and Lucien Carr, aged 19, who ended up at Columbia after a suicide attempt, which he refers to as “an artwork”. A little later, William S. Burroughs joins the group, introduced by his old childhood friend David Kammerer.
Kammerer is a definitely peculiar presence in the group. Almost 40 years old, he always hangs around with Lucien, the two of them going back some years. In fact, their first encounter dates back to when Lucien was just 12 and Kammerer worked as an English teacher, 14 years his senior. Since then, Kammerer developed an obsession with Carr, to the point of following him everywhere and showing up in each of the several schools that Carr changed throughout his adolescence. This brought Lucien’s family to believe that the boy’s suicide attempt was actually caused by Kammerer himself.
They ask us to walk fast and keep up, because the characters live in an unpredictable way and the reader needs to follow them if he doesn’t want to miss the boat.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks focuses on the odd relationship between Kammerer and Carr, and on the events that brought them on the front pages of New York’s newspapers for one whole week during the summer of 1944. The novel is a reconstruction of the facts surrounding the crime and leading up to the crude murder, as narrated by two of the friends from the Beat Generation group: Kerouac and Burroughs, writing under the pseudonyms of Mike Ryko and Will Dennison respectively. Their voices alternate from one chapter to the other with a recognizable style, Ryko being more focused on action, and Dennison more reflective and mysterious. Ryko tells the events from the point of view of Phillip Tourian (whom we can identify as Lucien Carr), with whom he plans his escape on board of a merchant ship. Dennison, on the other hand, often plays the role of the confessor of Ramsay Allen (an easily recognizable David Kammerer).
Phillip, 17 years old, is half Turkish and half American. He has a kind of beauty that inspires the astonished respect of classical sculptures, bright skin and green eyes. “This Phillip is the kind of boy literary fags write sonnets to, which starts out ‘O raven-haired Grecian lad…’” He’s always followed and accompanied by Ramsay Allen, an imposing 40-year-old man. “He looks like a down-at-the-heels actor, or someone who used to be somebody. Also he is a southerner and claims to be a good family, like all southerners.” He is obsessed with Phillip, for whom he’s full of attention and excessive concerns, while the young man often seems to take advantage of him and is almost pleased to humiliate him, in a complex relationship that is remindful of that between Humbert and Lolita.
As James W. Grauerholz writes in the novel’s afterword, the whole work is “a period piece. You’ll want to bring to your reading of this text all the imagery you associate with that period all the wartime music and automobiles and fashions, the movies and novels and headlines”.
An attempt that the authors make easier for the reader, thanks to the references they distribute throughout the narration — such as going to the cinema to watch a movie with Eleonora Duse, or a jukebox singing The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise by Benny Goodman. The music and the narrators’ voices take the reader from one pub to the other in the still nights of a New York City that is moving towards the end of the Second World War, serving as a canvas where the characters stand out like the dynamic and elusive subjects of a futuristic painting. They ask us to walk fast and keep up, because the characters live in an unpredictable way and the reader needs to follow them if he doesn’t want to miss the boat. Reader and characters together are moving into the darkness, some times fast and others slowly, when they wake up in the late mornings after a wild night, and then fast again running to the New York Harbor, from where Phillip hopes to sail far away to escape Ramsay’s obsessive advances.
If there is one undeniably fascinating thing about the Beat Generation, it’s the crude way it can slam reality in the reader’s face.
From time to time, the narration stops in a sort of ecstatic contemplation of the visionary thought of Phillip, who writes poems and daydreams what he defines the “new vision”; the mirage of an “ultimate society”; at times gripped in what sounds like a visionary delirium: “The ultimate society has to be the completely artistic society. Each of these artist-citizens must, during the course of this lifetime, complete his own spiritual circle. […] The artistic man alone will find the New Vision.” This “new vision” was in fact theorized by Carr, who, in collaboration with Ginsberg, defined the new necessity of creating a fracture in the existent literature, in open conflict with the pedantry and tradition of their professors and authors such as T. S. Eliot.
The “new vision” that Phillip Tourrian disseminates throughout the narration, like a Sybil inspired by the oracle, is the name of the manifesto written by Lucien Carr, which defined the guidelines of the Beat Generation.
1. Naked self-expression is the seed of creation.
2. The artist’s consciousness is expanded by the derangement of the senses.
3. Art eludes conventional morality.
Precisely during one of his visionary intuitions, Phillip fixes Ryko with a profound gaze and grabs him by the arm, demanding the same attention aroused by an unrepeatable fact: “You’re a fish in a pond. It’s drying up. You have to mutate into an amphibian, but someone keeps hanging on to you and telling you to say in the pond, everything’s going to be all right.” That someone, with a reassuring and at the same time persecutory face, brings to mind Ramsay, who’s trying to stop him from leaving New York. Meanwhile, the metallic voice of a radio speaker, reporting a fire in a circus, announces: “And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.” An element that adds a dark prophecy to the narration, already visionary in itself.
The book stands as a witness of the Beat Generation’s world on different levels: linguistic, due to is use of a colloquial and informal language, and also with regard to content, because if there is one undeniably fascinating thing about the Beat Generation, it’s the crude way it can slam reality in the reader’s face. But there’s also something else: the novel, with the deathly encounter between the two friends, marks the catharsis of the movement that became a milestone in the history of literature. As a matter of fact, there’s probably something more to be seen when Phillip, ambassador of the “new vision,” says: “Al’s around, and he’s a dead weight on all my ideas. I’ve got some new ideas. He belongs to an ancient generation”.
Phillip, on the other hand, is the fish in the pond that is drying up, standing for the new avant-garde poetics of the movement and the urgency to evolve.
When looked at under this particular light, Al (Ramsay Allen) represents what these poets are opposed to: tradition, compliance with the standard rules, and authors like T. S. Eliot. Allen’s murder becomes symbolic and necessary, sanctioning the irremediable break from the past and the advent of the avant-garde ideas of the new generation. According to this new key, that “someone who keeps hanging on” in the metaphor of the pond — presumably Al — represents once again the ancient norms, preventing literature from changing and evolving, from “transforming into an amphibian”; to survive in the new world where ancient models no longer hold sway, and the literary scenario is drying out. Phillip, on the other hand, is the fish in the pond that is drying up, standing for the new avant-garde poetics of the movement and the urgency to evolve. A declaration of poetics, in which life and poetry come together indissolubly, in a bond that, for violent and often nonsense actions, can capture existence in its dimension of brevity and urgency. An urgency that can sometimes appear insane in the eyes of a reader and that is translated into the rhythm of the Beat Generation, whose ultimate objective seems to be living here and now, in a sort of timeless present. As Ryko-Kerouac puts it: “She said, ‘What are you going to do out at the sea?’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry about the future.’”