Adventures in Reading: William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac’s AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS


I’ve always had a kind of contentious relationship with writers that were part of the “beat generation.” Their ideology/philosophy – that can be found in their work – is something I, in somewhat equal measures, simultaneously respect and abhor. They were the “bohemians” of the era, a lifestyle I’ve dabbled in myself, but I didn’t walk away from it with the most positive out look on the lifestyle.

From my experience, on one end of the spectrum there is the romantic notion of engaging in bohemianism, you know, the things you tell yourself when reality decides to invade the part of your brain where your self esteem is wallowing(It’s a dirty, lonely alley like place, that’s littered with, like broken beer bottles and discarded needles, your past successes and failures.). It’s the idea that you should do anything to achieve your own brand of happiness, which is commonly connected to your “art,” and this justification allows you to make excuses about the types of things you do to “support” yourself. On the other end of the spectrum, the negative side of the coin, you kind of end up acting like an exploitative, equal opportunity offender. Your mode of survival is, quite literally, taking advantage of the kindness/gullibility of others. Whether one is aware that they are doing this or not is irrelevant, because you are, in fact, doing it. Though, perception is everything, I suppose. I don’t imagine that most people that are bohemian in nature really consider the effect that their actions have. I know I didn’t. Well, not until I was forced to. So, I admire the dedication, and have problems with what that dedication requires, or turns a person into. Moving on…

Honestly, I haven’t read much Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs. I’m not sure there was any real reason for this. I have pretty eclectic tastes when it comes to stories, whether they’re in book form or not. I’ve read their most famous works(On the Road, Naked Lunch), but I found them much later in life. They didn’t really connect with me in any substantial way. Maybe if I would have found them in my teens I would have found them more profound or something, but being a pretty well traveled person, a lot of the “revelations” inside the novels I had already found out for myself and there profundity was “too little too late,” if you will. Now, this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the books. No, not at all. In fact, I really like Kerouac’s prose. He’s extremely florid, but still manages to always keep two feet on the ground. I was a little less impressed with Burroughs, honestly. While I enjoyed his writing style, from a prose stand-point, I found his plot devices to be just gross and weird for the sake of being gross and weird. He wanted to shock, but it didn’t really do anything for me(Honestly, the film Naked Lunch makes much more interesting use of the material.). Again, maybe if I had been younger…

So, on to the topic at hand! And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was written in 1945, but wasn’t published until sometime in 2008. There was a lot of “legend” surrounding the reasons as to why this was never published, but the reality is much more mundane. From the perspective of “legend,” people seemed to propagate the idea that the novel hadn’t been published because it’s contents were about the writers participation in a murder, and couldn’t be released for fear of prosecution of some type. Given the lives of the writers, a lot of folks found this to be plausible, as they were the type of people to engage in a lot of dark things just for the experience of it. Reality is never so salacious though, and the real reasons behind it are, like I said, pretty mundane. It just wasn’t really all that good. Well, according to the publishers. They did, especially Burroughs, try to get it published several times. Eventually, it ended up in a box in the attic of Kerouac’s parents house, and there it stayed for a very long time.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, has an interesting structure. Each writer wrote from the perspective of one character, and the perspective alternated with each chapter. Now, before I read the book, I found this to be kind of a cool idea. It would be interesting to read one story told from not only different character perspectives, but also from two different “voices.” Well, it was a nice thought. The novel is extremely plain, for lack of a better word. The writing is very matter of fact, and the talent of the writers is found to be pretty under developed. To be fair, this is each writers first novel, and neither of them would actually get published for another 12 years or so. I tried to keep that in mind, but this mindfulness didn’t make it any less of a slog. To sum up the writing “style” I’ll offer up this, “We went here and sat around. Then later on we went here to have a drink and find some one to borrow money from. Then we went here. Then we talked about maybe doing something. Then we drank more…” You get the gist. There are portions of the book that are almost verbatim like that. There are some flourishes of where the writers’ talents would end up, but man, they are few and far between.

If one takes a gander at the back side of the book cover you’ll see this description, “In the summer of 1944, a shocking murder rocked the fledgling beats.” Let me tell you something, there is nothing “shocking,” or any reason that they are “rocked” by this murder. In fact, it’s an almost inconsequential event that takes place at the very tail end of the story. What this book is actually about is the lifestyles of a few bohemians. They are all pretty young, they don’t have any idea of what they want out of life, and spend most of their time just looking for their next drink. Their isn’t much of a “plot,” per say. It’s more of just a tableau of their lifestyles, and some of the characters they meet while on their way. This would be all well in good if it weren’t for the above mentioned “matter of fact” writing style.

On the odd occasion that the writers actually develop the plot, there are some good character building, and when they do things it feels justified. They definitely give them a distinct feel and affectation. The characters that leave the littlest impact are, ironically, the writers. They aren’t all that distinct from one another, and make the interesting way the book is structured largely irrelevant. It honestly made no discernible different from chapter to chapter as to who was writing. If they had removed the authors names from their respective chapters, I would have not been able to tell who was who. Both writers wrote in the same trudging, mundane way. Although, knowing who was who, I think it was pretty clear that the young Jack Kerouac had a lot more invested in the story. It’s not a 50/50 content split between authors, and his sections tend to be longer and contain the more “interesting” stuff.

Thankfully. it’s a pretty short novel. Full disclosure, I only read this while on the toilet(Pooping, of course.), and it only took me about a week or so. Actually, it’s a pretty good “bathroom book,” as it’s kind of episodic, and has very clear points where you could stop(You know, so your legs don’t go numb. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. You’re better than that. Denial is beneath you.).

I can’t really recommend this book unless your a “die hard” fan of these two writers. It’s more of an interesting curiosity than a worthy read. It is kind of neat to see the “ground zero” point for two writers who ended up being pretty well respected(Whatever that means… Perception…). Hell, it was even kind of encouraging, and was a reminder that nobody is “just good” at something. So, when you read something or watch something, and you think it’s good, remember that it took a lot of work for the creator to get to that point. Nothing happens over night. Not success, and especially not talent. Well, I’ll leave you with this quote from from William S. Burroughs when asked about the novel in 1986, “It wasn’t sensational enough to make it . . . nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it [from] a purely literary point of view.”



I'm starting this blog in an effort to become a better writer, and thinker.

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