Many unpublished texts by famous authors turn out to be disappointing when they appear. They were sidelined because they weren't very good. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and this is one of them. In the 1940s, before cult status beckoned, Burroughs and Kerouac wrote a novel together. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks remained unpublished until now largely because it is based on a real-life killing by a friend of the proto-beats, Lucien Carr. Burroughs's literary executor waited until after Carr died before releasing the manuscript.
It was a sordid slaying. In a drunken quarrel, Carr stabbed an older admirer, David Klammerer (also a friend of the authors), and slung him into the Hudson river. Burroughs and Kerouac were indifferent to the crime, but they found its literary potential irresistible. The setting is the seamy milieu of wartime New York, where trust-fund drop-outs mix with criminals and would-be poets and writers. They drink all night, smoke pot, sleep around and hatch grandiose plans between stints of casual work. Being a free spirit meant treating women badly in a variety of ways. Kerouac's narrator, for example, takes it for granted that his girlfriend will cook breakfast when he returns home from a night on the town. Burroughs's narrator's description of fixing up with morphine, meanwhile, is given an almost spiritual intensity.
The novel has limited claims to the literary high ground, but is an enjoyable read. Co-authorship meant stylistic compromises, and yet the discipline it imposed resulted in a tightly focused manuscript. At this point, the authors hadn't developed the innovations that were to characterise their work. So Burroughs's chapters bear more resemblance to the social – or anti-social – realism of his early novels, Junky and Queer, than to his later cut-up writing. Having said this, the novel's title is a precursor of cut-up: a snatch of a news broadcast about a fire in a zoo. Kerouac is less loose than in the spontaneous prose novels which made his name.
At times, there are slight mechanical overtones to the story's progression as each author labours to fill in gaps and take it on a stage. But their efforts cohere into a spare existential narrative which races to a cruel denouement. Hippos stands the test of time; it is admirably hard-boiled.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies