Back Beat

By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  October 24, 2008

Burroughs, on the other hand, eventually came to conclude that the publishers’ response to the book had been justified. Though written in the style of a period detective novel, Hippos was hardly a whodunit, since the killing, done with an axe instead of a pocket knife, essentially ends the novel; the dual first-person treatment precludes any attempt to get inside the head of Carr, who in the day between the killing and his surrender must have felt like Raskolnikov. In fact, their analysis of the bizarre Carr-Kammerer relationship doesn’t get much beyond “Dennison’s” observation that “when they get together, something happens.”

Hippos. . . wasn’t a very good piece of work,” Burroughs told his biographer Ted Morgan years later. “No publisher was interested, and in hindsight, I don’t see why they should have been.”

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks probably won’t be confused with great literature, then, but as a study revealing two giants-to-be in the developmental stages of their craft, it may be a valuable historical document. Burroughs’s droll Midwestern cynicism is a counterpoint to the youthful Kerouac’s sometimes flighty exuberance, and, in a conversation with “Phillip Tourian” (the Carr character), Kerouac even gets a chance to practice telling the story of a wild, misspent night in Boston’s Scollay Square that will turn up, in a somewhat embellished version, in On the Road a dozen years later.

As in much of both men’s subsequent work, many of the dramatis personae are vaguely disguised depictions of actual people; the reader is left to amuse himself by guessing who’s who, although Grauerholz, who edited the book, hazards a few of his own in his introduction. (The best I can tell, only one figure, the legendary Village character Joe Gould, is represented under his own name.)

James Joyce once said, of a much better novel, that he hoped to leave a portrait of his birthplace “so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the Earth it could be reconstructed out of my book,” and that sentiment may actually represent the more enduring legacy of Hippos. With its evocative rendition of now-vanished saloons, bygone diners, and other landmarks of yesteryear, Burroughs and Kerouac may have inadvertently done for 1944 Greenwich Village what Joyce did for 1904 Dublin.

Sixty-three years after its completion, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks will be published on November 1. Unless I badly miss my guess, the first leaflets for the Hippos Walking Tour should start appearing by Christmastime.

George Kimball, former Phoenix and Boston Herald sports writer, is the author of Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran, and the Last Great Era of Boxing.

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