Wednesday, February 27, 2013

jack kerouac & william burroughs, "and the hippos were boiled in their tanks" book review

i finally had a chance to read "and the hippos were boiled in their tanks" this weekend (thanks to a library copy). while the novel was published in 2008, the jack kerouac and william burroughs collaboration on the fictionalized version the murder of david kammerer by lucien carr was written more than 60 years ago - in 1945! the murder itself took place in august, 1944, and both the victim and murder were personal friends of authors.  the back story behind the long delay in publication is described in the afterward written by james grauerholz, burroughs' literary executor.  in brief, because of the authors friendship with lucien carr, they decided not to publish "hippos" during his lifetime. following carr's death in 2005, the novel would finally be published.

despite the self-imposed publication embargo, kerouac and burroughs did seek publishers for the novel in 1945.  notably, simon & schuster took a pass on the work by two, as yet, unknown authors.  kerouac's first novel wouldn't be published until 1949 and burrough's wouldn't see his first works published until the early 1950s,  more significantly, even though "hippos" wasn't published during the lifetime of the principle players, the story itself was often retold.  kerouac included yet another fictionalized version of the murder in his last novel, "vanity of dulouz," published in 1969.  the murder story was recently made into a movie, "kill your darlings," and premiered at the sundance film festival last month.

the outline of the kammerer murder is well known to fans of the beat generation.  carr stabbed kammerer with his boy scout knife in morningside park, tied up his arm and legs with shoelaces, and then dumped - the apparently barely alive body of - david kammerer in the hudson river.  the murder is often credited (blamed?) as the catalyst that fueled the birth of the beats as writers.  while that may overstate the influence (kerouac had already written thousands of words by this point), it resulted in this particular novel (burroughs' first) and a separate, but ultimately abandoned effort at a novel, by allen ginsberg.

in "hippos" kerouac and burroughs write alternate chapters (for the most part) through their alter egos, mike ryko and william dennison, respectively.  they move the primary action from morningside heights down to the village - including the murder itself which now takes place in an abandoned factory instead of the park.  carr employs a hatchet instead of a boy scout knife to inflict the fatal wounds.  and, instead of the hudson river, he tosses kammerer's body off the factory roof and into the overgrown lot adjacent to the building,  the story is told in a straightforward, linear detail; with each author filling in his view of the facts to move the narrative forward.

the days that lead up to the murder are fascinating.  the characters spend seeminly endless hours in bars or apartments drinking, smoking and eating - or walking and commuting between these scenes.  they detail the ongoing efforts of carr and kerouac, as merchant marines, to find employment on a ship that's bound for france (along w/their erstwhile plans to jump ship there and hitch their way to paris). burroughs himself has a day job at a detective agency where he's tasked with serving summons (or spying on couples engaged in adultery).  while the writing may not reach literary heights, it is functional and paints an excellent portrait of world war II era new york city.
the sad part of this remarkably sad story is how, if painted fairly by kerouac and burroughs, shallow and callous a person lucien carr really is at heart.  at best, the entire book evokes an existential sensibility that permeates each character.  not just the remorseless carr/murderer himself, but burroughs and kerouac themselves are utterly indifferent when confronted by the facts of kammerer's death.  this isn't the death of a stranger, but of someone they know well and that they've interacted with repeatedly and intimately (just over the days preceding the murder, in fact).  the sheer detachedness and indifference by all involved, given the circumstance, is chilling.

last, but also worth mentioning, is the dramatically different outcomes that result when wealth and influence are involved.  not only is carr treated with kid gloves because his uncle can afford high priced lawyers, but burroughs, who was held as a material witness, managed to walk free after he posted bail.  kerouac, instead, with no money (and a father unwilling to post his bail) or connections not only languished in jail as a material witness, but ultimately decided to marry edie parker (they let him leave jail to get married at city hall, then brought him right back until the bail was posted) so that her parents would provide the bail money to free him! 

while the post-murder details aren't played out in the novel, they are worth considering.  especially the sentence of two years in the elmira reformatory that carr received in exchange for his guilty plea.  not the just length sentence - which was lenient in and of itself - is interesting, but the fact that he had to serve any of the time at all because it was implied that part of the plea deal could have avoided jail time entirely.  carr's lawyer suggested that he wanted his client to serve some time to reflect on the crime he committed!  how dostoevskian :D

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