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By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  October 24, 2008

A fourth member of the circle was David Kammerer. Even older than Burroughs, whom he had known since they were small boys in St. Louis, Kammerer had developed a fixation on Carr when the latter was but 11 years of age, an unrequited obsession that had brought him to New York by the late summer of 1944.

Carr seems to have been deeply conflicted by the relationship. Flattered by the attention, he did not always discourage Kammerer’s affection, but seems to have been so repulsed by the notion of physical intimacy with a man he had come to regard as a meddlesome stalker that he had undertaken plans to ship out with Kerouac on his next voyage.

On August 14, 1944, following a somewhat drunken evening of horseplay in Riverside Park, Carr produced a Boy Scout knife and stabbed his tormentor twice in the chest. Believing Kammerer to be dead, he tied his arms together with shoelaces, weighted down the body, and rolled him into the Hudson River, where, an autopsy subsequently revealed, he drowned.

Carr didn’t turn himself in to the police for more than 24 hours, during which time he sought the advice, separately, of Kerouac and Burroughs, technically involving both as accessories to the crime (even though the latter’s paternal advice had been that Carr should surrender and throw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he had merely been defending his honor by warding off the older man’s homosexual advances). Warrants were issued for both Kerouac and Burroughs. Burroughs, owing to family connections and a high-priced lawyer, was released following a desk appearance. Kerouac was briefly jailed as a material witness.

The story preoccupied the New York tabloids for weeks, not because of the fame of the principals, whose renown was still more than a decade away, but because “The Columbia Murder,” with its elements of sexual obsession and its Ivy League motif, provided the properly salacious ingredients to make it juicy front-page fodder.

Carr’s defense was essentially the one suggested by Burroughs, and he wound up doing only two years in a state reformatory in Elmira. Only years later did it come to light that, while his relationship with Kammerer was almost certainly unconsummated, he had engaged in sexual hijinks with other men, including Ginsberg. This revelation appears to have been a source of deep humiliation for the hard-boiled newspaperman. (When Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, it was originally dedicated “to Lucien Carr,” who requested that his name be omitted from subsequent editions.) And it was out of respect for Carr that the publication of Hippos was not contemplated until the killer was safely buried under ground.

More artifact than art
That a tale so fascinating to the press might also lend itself to dramatic adaptation occurred to many. In his introduction to Hippos, Grauerholz notes that, over the years, recognizable aspects of the Carr-Kammerer killing have cropped up “in novels and memoirs . . . by Chandler Brossard, William Gaddis, Alan Harrington, John Clellon Holmes, Anatole Broyard, Howard Mitcham, and even James Baldwin.”

Ginsberg, in a school project, was the first of the inner circle to attempt a fictional treatment, but when word of The Bloodsong, Ginsberg’s work-in-progress for a Columbia creative-writing class, reached the university administration, the future poet was summoned to the dean’s office and threatened with expulsion lest he further damage Columbia’s already-sullied reputation with his “smutty” novel.

Ginsberg dutifully discontinued his project, and Kerouac and Burroughs commenced writing And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks shortly thereafter. (The title was a touch of quintessentially Burroughsian whimsy, appropriated from a radio broadcast describing a circus fire.) The two alternated chapters in a curious format that led to a sometimes-bewildering three levels of authorship.

The chapters are pseudonymously narrated by “Will Dennison” (the Burroughs narrator) and “Mike Ryko” (the Kerouac narrator), and when the book made the rounds of publishing houses in 1945, the author credits read “by William Lee and John Kerouac” — the same bylines that would grace the first published work of each, Burroughs’s Junky (1953) and Kerouac’s earlier conventional mainstream novel The Town and the City (1950). Not until they followed Ginsberg’s Howl with their own respective signature works, Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), did they become Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

The publishing world reacted with sublime indifference to the Hippos manuscript, which after numerous rejections was eventually stowed away under a floorboard in the home of Kerouac’s mother, and the unread book assumed a certain legendary underground cachet. (I had heard about it even before Kerouac’s death, and that was 40 years ago.)

Kerouac, who periodically attempted to revive interest in Hippos, was wont to describe it as if it were a suppressed masterpiece, but then Jack thought every first draft he ever wrote was a masterpiece, and many of them weren’t. (If nothing else, last year’s publication of The Scroll has validated the role of Malcolm Cowley; Kerouac claimed Cowley’s revisions of On the Road had done grievous harm to the work’s intended “spontaneity,” but a comparison of the two pretty conclusively establishes that the Viking editor made it a much better book.)

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  Topics: Books , William S. Burroughs , William S. Burroughs , Greenwich Village ,  More more >
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  •   BACK BEAT  |  October 24, 2008
    At last, Kerouac and Burroughs's co-authored noir novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, resurfaces.
  •   BOOKMAN  |  July 08, 2008
    Larry McMurtry’s life in the trade
  •   FORE!  |  June 10, 2008
    The thief who reinvented himself as a Hollywood celebrity

 See all articles by: GEORGE KIMBALL

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