And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was written in the couple years following the murder of David Kammerer -- the real-life case which Burroughs and Kerouac were so close to, and on which this story is based. Facts and names have been changed to protect the innocent...but, like most Beat books, the source material is not as well hidden by code-names as the participants would probably like and the book wasn't published until 2008. Fifty years later.
As if the subject matter wasn't interesting enough, it's also written by two iconic figures of the Beat generation: Burroughs and Kerouac. The story is told in alternating chapters, first Burroughs and then Kerouac taking turns at writing the chapters. This does result in a certain choppiness--which you would expect. After all, even icons were fledgling writers at some point and it's hard to control consistency-of-tone with one writer, let alone two. But it's not as rough as a reader would expect. According to the Afterword by James Grauerholz, Kerouac did type the manuscript "just as it is preserved, with no missing pages; he was a good speller and handy with punctuation." So, there you have it: good writers can do good jobs.
The story is very much a slice-of-life kind of piece, not a sensationalistic recounting of a bloody murder. If you want to know the ins and outs of the Merchant Marines at the end of WWII, bars, how to get money outta your friends, and morphine use, then this is your book. (Okay, maybe not quite that extreme.) The murder isn't a centerpiece the way that contemporary true-crime novels. The presentations of motive (and even that is not overt) and the story of the relationships behind the murder are central.
The overall voice reads very noir. The language is straightforward, which is why I think that the tone doesn't shift as much as it could otherwise. Take for example: "Then we boarded the subway and went back downtown to Washington Square." (Kerouac's chapter) and "We took the Independent down to Washington Square and said good night at the entrance because we were going in opposite directions." (Burroughs's chapter). Subject matter and descriptions are pretty similar.
Dennison and Ryko are the narrators, and they do a good a job. The characters are observant, full of questionable advice, and their reactions to a potentially explosive situation are very cavalier...which adds to the tension of the story. As a reader, I felt that the two leads were just as likely to kill or be killed at any given moment. Or die stupidly. To put it another way, it's like reading The Outsiders, only without Ponyboy's conscience.
The title alone is worth a star by itself.
View all my reviews