The Beat Generation, Before It Was Cool
Friday, November 7, 2008
AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS
By William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac
Grove. 214 pp. $24
"And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks" is a literary curiosity, a genuine collectible. Here is its back story:
In 1944, in New York, a group of men, young and some not so young, hung around Columbia University, trying to find themselves. They included Jack Kerouac, just coming off a short career in the Merchant Marine; William S. Burroughs, not yet having written a word but already interested in the world of drugs; Allen Ginsberg, enthusiastic and charming but marginal to this story. These three shared mutual friends: Lucien Carr, a teenage boy genius who shone, particularly in Lionel Trilling's class (Have I dropped enough names yet?), and David Kammerer, a man who had taught Lucien in a private school about a half-dozen years before and who became hopelessly smitten with the kid. Carr would leave one school, enroll in another, and a few weeks later Kammerer would show up, just to look at him, to dote on him. Whether they had sex isn't known. But Kammerer would do things like sneak into Carr's room at night to watch him sleep. (One wonders now, decades later, where were Carr's parents? Or the police?)
Unformed, hapless, maybe a dozen of these guys hung out, doing what many of us do before getting married and settling down. They visited one another's seedy apartments, cadged money for one six-pack after another, went in flocks to art movies, engaged in sophomoric conversation about the Meaning of Life. Then one sultry August night, Carr and Kammerer went out for a walk in a park. They quarreled. Carr stabbed Kammerer with a pocket knife, threw him into the Hudson River and went off to tell Burroughs about it. Burroughs suggested he find a good lawyer and say he'd been protecting his honor. Then Carr went around to ask Kerouac's advice -- these were still just kids, remember -- and the two of them spent one last aimless day wandering the streets of New York, looking at pictures in a museum, drinking at a series of bars, until Carr finally got up the nerve to turn himself in.
Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses. Burroughs, who had a respectable family back in St. Louis, asked for their help and got out on bond. Kerouac, who came from a very different kind of family, found that his stepfather wouldn't put up any money. Instead, Kerouac arranged to marry his then-girlfriend so that her parents would bail him out of jail.
But what an event this was in these humdrum lives: an actual murder! For a bunch of grubby English majors, this seemed like the big time -- Life with a capital L. Ginsberg began working on a novel about it in his creative-writing class, only to be hauled on the carpet by the dean and told to stop: Columbia already had enough bad publicity. Then Kerouac and Burroughs decided to collaborate on a novel about the murder, alternating chapters, writing in a hard-boiled style. Burroughs would take the part of a loner bartender and then detective; Kerouac would be pretty much himself -- an ex-Merchant Marine, living with a sulky girlfriend, a guy who dreams incessantly of shipping out. Their manuscript, rejected by several New York publishers and then apparently forgotten, is now available in its entirety for the first time.
In terms of plot, until the murder itself, paralyzing boredom is the order of the day. Groups of people drop by the apartments of other people who really don't want to see them. Characters spend long, long minutes on street corners deciding what restaurant to go to. They see movies and then argue about them. In a Burroughs chapter, a rat runs into the middle of a room, then runs away. At another point, the Kerouac character dislodges a dead roach from the bottom of a glass so that he can pour himself some milk. A few girls wander through the landscape, tolerated but barely paid attention to.
Through these alternating chapters, the reader may search for the embryonic prose styles of two very different writers. Burroughs thinks shooting up morphine is dramatic and compelling enough to devote several paragraphs to the process. Kerouac lavishes time on the mechanics of shipping out and expresses a yearning to "travel far."
But what really comes through most significantly here is how different times were then. No television! So people sat in rooms and looked at each other. The phone was down in the lobby; if your buzzer rang, that meant you had a phone call. And most of all, although this is a social circle of primarily gay guys, nobody mentions it or seems to acknowledge it except when a disgruntled girlfriend accuses someone of being "queer." To be gay was still to be an outlaw. What would Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg think of all these nice gay guys we have now, planning their weddings and asking their parents to the ceremony? And drugs have become so commonplace that checking into rehab is like visiting your Midwestern aunt.
Carr was incarcerated for a couple of years, then found work at UPI, got married and had three kids, one being the acclaimed novelist Caleb Carr. Kerouac found joy for a while when he was out on that mystical Road. Burroughs found his "outlaw" admirers. Ginsberg, besides writing his poetry, dressed up in costume and played the harmonium. But "Hippos" is a story of poverty before they invented the dogma that went along with being "Beat," a story of rodents, vermin and unwashed limbs and dollar bills stolen from purses. You can collect it, but you really don't have to read it.