November 28, 2008

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

William Burroughs' (1914 - 1997) and Jack Kerouac's (1922 - 1969) attempt to fictionalise a murder in their midst languished unpublished for over six decades. “It isn't very good, it isn't worth publishing,” said Burroughs of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Kerouac, perhaps always more committed to becoming a writer than Burroughs, returned to the killing both in The Town and the City and Vanity of Duluoz, but the collaborative effort was ostensibly held back – despite names and places being changed to protect the guilty – because the principal characters were still alive. Now, neither the authors nor others involved can object to those still benefiting from their efforts making a killing.

That said, Burroughs was largely right: … Hippos… is an interesting test run of Beat style but no long-lost masterpiece. Written some years before Kerouac went on the road and Burroughs dedicated himself to becoming a proper junkie, it's a drowsy account of some deadbeat proto-slackers, getting by on doing as little as possible in a mid-1940s New York kept busy by distant war. It could be read as intended, a light-weight variation of the back-to-back dime store crime novel, but it could also be read as two separate, intertwined novellas. The alternating chapters clearly designate their respective author, so separating the two is easy – in which case Burroughs' chapters hold up better.

Kerouac meanders more, gets distracted, while Burroughs already utilises the tough, clipped, “just the facts, ma'am” narrative more akin to witness statements than fiction. A style – gleaned during many adolescent hours from the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Jim Black – he would later so expertly cut-up and skewer.

All over America, people were pulling credentials out of their pockets and sticking them under someone else's nose to prove they had been somewhere or done something. And I thought someday everyone in America will suddenly jump up and say "I don't take any shit!" and start pushing and cursing and clawing at the man next to him.

The protagonists' detachment from each other, their insensitivity and lack of empathy is far more appalling than the concluding murder itself. Numbness permeates the proceedings. Burroughs in particular seems quite disenchanted and, given his well-publicised penchant, unusually hostile towards gays; a peculiar concession to the conventions of the time from a proud figurehead of the unconventional.

Burroughs' long time companion, secretary, and business manager James Grauerholz attempts to dispel some of the myths surrounding the real murder in the accompanying essay, and tries to clarify the origin of the novel's title. Wherever it came from, or whatever its creators wanted it to imply, it could be interpreted as a reflection on the beat(en) generation itself. Like the titular hippos, they were caught in the constraining tanks of reactionary middle-class values, broke and bored dropouts stewing in inactivity, as the pressure to conform slowly raised the heat to boiling point. Little wonder so many of them burned out.

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