Home / Arts / Books / And the Manuscript Surfaces
Monday, Feb. 2, 2009

And the Manuscript Surfaces

Kerouac and Burroughs’ lost novel

Google+ Pinterest Print

In 1944, years before On the Road and Naked Lunch made them household names, 22-year-old Jack Kerouac and 30-year-old William S. Burroughs took turns writing chapters of a novel. They envisioned the story, based on actual events between close friends, as a dime-store page-turner. The title of this would-be potboiler: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

Burroughs and Kerouac submitted the book to Random House and Simon & Schuster, both of whom refused it. The manuscript remained unpublished until issued by Grove Press late last year.

Beat fanatics-including, for a time, Kerouac himself-have lobbied for the release of this book, and they will find beautiful prose therein. Kerouac's recollection of a prolonged goodbye to a friend is full of heartbreaking detail, recalled with an almost frantic longing. After describing a bar fight, Burroughs' narrator drifts into humbled reverie: "I had the feeling that all over America such stupid arguments were taking place on street corners and in bars and restaurants. 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…"

Detractors will find much to dislike as well. Artistry such as that quoted above is scarce, the characters are vapid and the potentially exciting plot is trivialized by a shared voice distinguished mostly by casual disdain for much of the human race. If it's possible for first-time novelists to commit self-parody, Kerouac and Burroughs have done it. The book's two narrators, Will Dennison (Burroughs) and Mike Ryko (Kerouac), drink, disrespect women, talk rubbish about their friends, watch French art-house films and drop literary names. A sampling:

n "Ryko was reading T.S. Eliot on the couch, and I began to neck with Helen and feel up her leg."

n "I asked Phillip when he was going to get a ship, and he said Monday. Then we talked about Rimbaud."

The narrators' repulsiveness doesn't stop with their lame literary lip service: They live in Manhattan and one of their friends is gay, but they complain incessantly about "queers" and "fags." Their friendships and romantic dalliances are all hollow and fickle, with no real mental, emotional, political or spiritual bonds, and not even decent rapport.

The story revolves around an 18-year-old character, a bland emotionless fellow named Phillip Tourian. Tourian's character is based on Lucien Carr, the Columbia University student who first introduced Kerouac, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to each other. In 1944, Carr murdered David Kammerer, a 30-something friend of the early Beats. Carr served a light sentence for the murder. He became a renowned UPI editor and father of best-selling novelist Caleb Carr. According to Carr's wishes, this novelization of the murder and surrounding events was not published in his lifetime. Carr passed away in 2005. Editor James Grauerholz's afterword, which tells the story of Carr, his integral relationship to the Beats, the murder and its public resonance (inspiring works by at least seven other writers, including James Baldwin) and this book, is fascinating. According to Grauerholz, Allen Ginsberg wrote the definitive account of the murder in his published journals.

So why publish this book, besides filthy lucre? Grauerholz alleges that Burroughs wanted the book to reflect its special time and place. In the languorous hipster dialogue, occasionally slipping into black vernacular, there is some nuance. In the many scenes that take place walking down the street, there is something approximating energy. World War II has faded into the background, a tiresome charade useful only for stowing away on ships to Paris.

Small wonder that Lucien Carr forbade the publication of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks until after his death. It does no one justice-moral, legal or literary.