He K-norcked Her One

August Kleinzahler

  • And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs
    Penguin, 214 pp, £20.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 84614 164 5

In Vanity of Duluoz, a cross between a novel and a memoir published in 1968, a year before his death, Jack Kerouac wrote about the circle of friends he had met in the spring of 1944, on his return from a stint in the Merchant Marine, describing them as ‘the most evil and intelligent buncha bastards and shits in America’. The group included Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer. In August 1944, Carr stabbed and killed Kammerer. Near the end of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a lightly fictionalised and surprisingly engaging account of the murder and of the months leading up to it, written in 1945 by Kerouac and Burroughs in alternate chapters, Kerouac says: ‘I began to think about how I used to imagine what it would be like to kill someone and how I used to write thousands of words to create that pattern of emotions. Now here stood [Carr] beside me, and he had actually done it.’

Kerouac was 22 at the time of the murder; Carr was 19 and a student at Columbia University. It was Carr who introduced Kerouac to Ginsberg, another Columbia student. He introduced them both to Burroughs, who was then 30, and to Kammerer, a contemporary of Burroughs who had been his friend since the early 1920s. Carr, Kammerer and Burroughs all came from affluent St Louis families. Carr first met Kammerer when he was 11: Kammerer was his gym teacher, and later gave up his job teaching at Washington University in St Louis to follow Carr from city to city and college to college, taking a job as a janitor, and living on Grove Street in Greenwich Village while Carr was at Columbia. This is the way Burroughs describes them in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (Phillip Tourian is Carr; Ramsay Allen, or Al, is Kammerer):

This Phillip is the kind of boy literary fags write sonnets to, which start out: ‘O raven-haired Grecian lad . . .’ He was wearing a pair of very dirty slacks and a khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up showing hard muscular forearms.

Ramsay Allen is an impressive-looking grey-haired man of 40 or so, tall and a little flabby. He looks like a down-at-the-heels actor, or someone who used to be somebody. Also, he is a Southerner and claims to be of a good family, like all Southerners. He is a very intelligent guy but you wouldn’t know it to see him now. He is so stuck on Phillip he is hovering over him like a shy vulture, with a foolish sloppy grin on his face.

  Al is one of the best guys I know, and you couldn’t find better company. And Phillip is all right too. But when they get together something happens, and they form a combination which gets on everybody’s nerves.

The Carr/Kammerer relationship was never consummated but the two men remained inseparable, locked in their dynamic of pursuer and pursued. Kammerer was clearly besotted with Carr, a beautiful, intelligent boy with a penchant for outlandish, often reckless pranks, like tossing trays of food over at restaurants or – a favourite – breaking beer bottles and eating the shards. There is a scene in one of the Burroughs chapters, apparently taken from life, in which Phillip and Al are both chewing large pieces of glass bitten off a cocktail glass. Al goes into the bathroom to look at his bleeding gums in the mirror. Phillip tells Burroughs – who appears under the pseudonym Will Dennison – that chewing on the glass has given him an appetite. ‘So I went into the closet,’ Burroughs/Dennison writes, ‘and fooled around for a while, and came out with a lot of old razor blades on a plate with a jar of mustard.’

Kerouac and Burroughs seem to have hoped to capitalise on the murder by writing the story in true-crime mode and making a quick sale to a publisher. But the book is, as much as anything, a picaresque tale about unrequited love and boho life against the backdrop of Greenwich Village in wartime. The main characters go from apartment to apartment, bar to bar, Al hopelessly lurching after Phillip, getting himself into predicaments worthy of Buster Keaton. Sailors and GIs are everywhere. New York Harbor is chockablock with troop carriers and freighters loaded with ordnance. Phillip and Mike Ryko (the Kerouac figure) are trying to get onto a merchant ship headed for France, so that Phillip can get clear of Al. Kerouac/Ryko describes the scene at one of the docks:

Longshoremen were loading some US Army tanks on a freighter across the way, and outside the shed a freight train was puffing in, hauling a string of flatcars carrying tanks, jeeps and trucks. In the slip a barge was docked, alongside another Liberty ship, and a tremendous crane was hauling up 20mm anti-aircraft guns to the platform on the flying bridge of the ship.

Writing as Ryko, the hard-drinking, devil-may-care merchant seaman, liberates Kerouac’s sense of humour, which is good-natured, almost puppy-like, especially when compared with Burroughs’s relentlessly sardonic deadpan. He is particularly amusing in the scenes with Ryko and his girlfriend, Janie, with whom he lives uptown near Columbia. Janie was, in life, Edie Parker, who would become Kerouac’s first wife. Friends described her as resembling Barbara Stanwyck, not just in looks, it would seem from the book, but in manner: Janie has a mouth on her. In one domestic scene, Ryko and Janie are in the bedroom while Phillip is crashing on the couch. Al has just fled the apartment after Janie threw a book at him, yelling at him to ‘go home!’

‘Him out there,’ Janie said when I started undressing, ‘you’d better watch out for him.’

‘Who?’

‘Mr Phillip.’

‘What’s the matter with him?’

‘You know why he wants to ship out with you, don’t you?’

I threw my pants on the chair and said: ‘No, why?’

‘Because he’s a queer and wants to make you.’

‘What?’ I said.

  ‘Don’t “what” me. Some night at sea when he jumps on you, you’ll know what I was talking about.’

A fight begins, during which Janie tells Ryko: ‘I’ve been giving you money, now you start hanging around with a bunch of queers and don’t come home at night.’

Then I turned quickly sideways as she brought her knee up to my balls. She followed up by punching me on the side of the face with her hard, thin knuckles. So I k-norcked her one with the palm of my hand.

There was a small table by the side of the bed that had a big ashtray heaped with cigarette butts and ashes on it, and books, papers, an alarm clock, empty glasses, bottles of perfume, nail files, a deck of cards, and a container of talcum powder. Janie hit the edge of the table on her way down and tipped it over so that the contents spilled all over her. She was lying there spitting out cigarette butts, with ashes and talcum powder all over her face and her dress up over her knees.

‘You bastard!’ she screamed. ‘You’re trying to mar my beauty!’

So I went out into the other room.

  Phillip was sitting up on the couch. ‘Darling,’ he said in a loud voice, ‘I can’t hide my love any longer.’

After the actual murder, committed in the early hours of 14 August 1944 in Riverside Park, Carr threw Kammerer’s body into the Hudson, his arms tied together and his body weighted with rocks. Then he went to Burroughs, who, even though he was Kammerer’s oldest friend, told Carr to get himself a good lawyer and claim that he’d been defending his honour, protecting himself against a predatory homosexual. Carr then spent the rest of the day with Kerouac. Their afternoon together is beautifully handled here by Kerouac.

In the book Phillip then goes to his uncle’s apartment. In life Carr went to his mother’s – she kept a place in New York – and she got him an attorney. The attorney took Carr to the district attorney’s office. The next morning, Kerouac was picked up at Edie’s apartment as a material witness and held in custody: he was unable to make bail because his father, disgusted with his son’s friends, refused to pay out. Burroughs was working for a detective agency on a divorce case, listening for ‘amorous noises’ in a hotel room, when he was told of Carr’s arrest and that he was wanted as a witness. He hastily phoned his parents in St Louis, who, as Carr’s mother had done, found him an attorney. Burroughs was taken in for questioning, and quickly released on bail, after which he retreated to St Louis for a couple of months. Kerouac married Edie while he was still in jail, part of a deal resulting in her parents posting bail.

The marriage didn’t last long. After a shaky year, unsettled by his divorce from Edie and the death of his father, along with his own hospitalisation for complications related to his excessive alcohol and Benzedrine use, Kerouac met Neal Cassady and, through Cassady, discovered his mature style, the ‘spontaneous prose’ that resulted in On The Road (1957) and a string of celebrated, uneven, often terrific road novels. But the murder, or at least that period in his life, was a subject Kerouac returned to in his writing again and again, much to the distress of Carr, who, after serving two years at the reformatory in Elmira, New York, straightened up, married, had three sons and a distinguished 50-year career as an editor for United Press International. Carr was also embarrassed by the revelations, in Ginsberg’s Journals, that the two had had a sexual relationship while students at Columbia. By November, Burroughs had begun injecting himself with morphine. Seven years later he accidentally shot and killed his common law wife, Joan, while trying out a William Tell stunt at a party in Mexico City.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is a phrase Burroughs and Kerouac happened on when they heard a radio news broadcast about a fire in a zoo, while they were sitting in a bar on Columbus Circle; the title has nothing at all to do with the events described in the book. The Burroughs/Dennison sections are, on balance, better written and more entertaining. Burroughs was very much the mentor of the group, presiding over gatherings at his apartment at 69 Bedford Street, round the corner from Kammerer’s place, feeding his acolytes Spengler, Vico, Blake, Cocteau’s Opium, even psychoanalysing them: by this stage Burroughs had seen more shrinks than the front guard at Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. But Kerouac was by far the more experienced writer, even though eight years younger. ‘Jack Kerouac knew about writing when I first met him in 1944,’ Burroughs later wrote:

He was 21; already he had written a million words and was completely dedicated to his chosen trade. It was Kerouac who kept telling me I should write and call the book I wrote Naked Lunch. I had never written anything after high school and did not think of myself as a writer, and I told him so. ‘I got no talent for writing . . .’ I had tried a few times, a page maybe. Reading it over always gave me a feeling of fatigue and disgust, an aversion towards this form of activity, such as a laboratory rat must experience when he chooses the wrong path and gets a sharp reprimand from a needle in his displeasure centres.

In fact, Burroughs had written something when he was at Harvard, a collaboration with his friend Kells Elvins in 1938, in which the two young men wrote alternate paragraphs. ‘Twilight’s Last Gleamings’ is a slapstick, occasionally surreal piece based on a Titanic sort of episode, with the captain of the ship dressing up as a woman to get himself onto a lifeboat. Burroughs had also written a diary as a teenager, documenting his infatuation with another boy at boarding school, but the experience had put him off writing until the sketch with Elvins. A character introduced in the piece, Dr Benway, would appear repeatedly in his later fiction. His next piece of writing was the collaboration with Kerouac, seven years later. The original title was ‘I Wish I Were You’, meant, presumably, to suggest the way Kammerer felt about Carr.

If the plan was to write the book in the hard-boiled style, the work that influenced Burroughs was probably a memoir by the thief and addict Jack Black entitled You Can’t Win, a book Burroughs discovered and fell in love with at the age of 12. It’s a remarkable book in which violent and depraved behaviour is related with the almost nonchalant graphicness we associate with Burroughs’s later writing, especially Junky, a book, which when shown to Jason Epstein, then a young editor at Doubleday, met with the response: ‘The prose is not very good. This could only work if it was written by someone important, like Winston Churchill.’ The hard-boiled style does not come naturally to Kerouac, but his attempt at it leavens the moony Romanticism of the Thomas Wolfe phase he was passing through at the time, a phase that would result in his first published novel, The Town and the City.