I Just Killed Al and Threw the Body Off a Warehouse.
If you’re reading And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, you are, quite likely, already familiar with the works of authors Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. You don’t get your start reading Kerouac and Burroughs with a book like Hippos; these days, you start with On the Road and Naked Lunch and work your way up from there. This is perhaps ironic, as Hippos was written well before either of those magnum opuses were available.
And if you’re familiar with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, you are, quite likely, already familiar with the story being told in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. The murder of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr was just one tragedy of many that plagued the literary movement of the Beat Generation, of which Kerouac and Burroughs, along with poet Allen Ginsberg and a seemingly endless menagerie of associates and hangers-on, helped to define.
The true story of Lucien Carr and David Kammerer is actually much more multi-faceted and much more interesting than what was captured on the page. Carr was roughly 14 years younger than Kammerer, and the two had met when he was just a boy who joined a scout troop that the older man was leading. Kammerer became romantically interested in Carr and pursued him relentlessly. It appears as if Carr grew to appreciate the attention (or, more likely, was groomed to do so), as he continued to see Kammerer socially even after he grew older and Kammerer followed him to New York, where he attended Columbia University.
Nowhere else has the fluidity of sexual identity been so apparent as among the members of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs identified as homosexual, but both had been married to women. Jack Kerouac and his On the Road partner Neal Cassady identified as heterosexual, but both had been known to engage in homosexual activity. Similarly, Lucien Carr considered himself heterosexual, but according to some sources (namely James Grauerholz, literary executor of William S. Burroughs and friend of Lucien Carr) would occasionally dabble with other men—but never with David Kammerer, which surely must have frustrated him to no end. Regardless of Carr’s orientation, it can’t be overlooked that Kammerer’s fascination with him began when Carr was only 12 years old, and makes it of a predatory nature.
What truly happened between the two men on the August 1944 night that Kammerer was killed can not be verified. What is known is that he was upset by the fact that Carr was preparing to set sail with Jack Kerouac in the merchant marines, leading him to a destination where Kammerer could not follow. The two went for a walk through Riverside Park in Manhattan, and only one of them came out alive.
According to Carr’s report, Kammerer made yet another in a long line of sexual advances that Carr rebuked. This time, however, Kammerer physically assaulted him, and Carr protected himself by stabbing him twice in the chest, with his Boy Scout knife—a symbol of their beginning now becoming the tool of their end. In a state of panic, he then bound the dead man’s arms and legs, weighted his pockets with rocks, and tossed him into the Hudson River.
Carr next went to William S. Burroughs, which was an odd choice, as Burroughs and Kammerer were old friends. Perhaps he was hoping for some outlaw guidance from the older man with minor ties to the criminal underworld, or perhaps he instinctively knew that Burroughs’ own code of ethics would not allow him to report the crime. Regardless, Burroughs advised him to hire a lawyer and turn himself over to the police.
Carr’s next stop was a visit to Jack Kerouac, and while Carr considered the advice given to him by Burroughs, the two enjoyed one last day on the town—visiting museums, seeing movies, drinking beers. In the end, Carr did turn himself in and was charged with second-degree murder—which the press famously latched onto as an “honor slaying”—and served two years. Kerouac and Burroughs were both arrested as well, as material witnesses. The Burroughs family bailed their son out immediately, but Kerouac’s father refused to. Instead, Kerouac had to reach out to his girlfriend Edie Parker, who agreed to gather the funds only if he promised to marry her. They were wed, but it was short lived.
After Lucien Carr was released, he was reluctant to talk about the murder or much of anything regarding his past. He tried to reinvent himself, and became a longtime and successful editor for United Press International (UPI). He married and had children, and seemed to set himself on the straight and narrow…which is why hearing his son, novelist Caleb Carr, talk of his father’s abusive nature is so disheartening. His comments were made in response to the film KILL YOUR DARLINGS, which was also based on the David Kammerer murder, and can be read in full by clicking here.
And now back to the book at hand. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is a fictionalized account of these events that was written by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs in 1945, with each author telling their sides of the story in alternating chapters. It remains of interest to fans of the Beat Generation as a priceless cultural artifact, but as a standalone piece of literature, it’s not difficult to see why no publisher would touch it during the era that it was written.
Kerouac is known for his free-flowing Jazz inspired prose, and Burroughs for his pseudo-hardboiled nightmare fictions. At their heights, these two styles would scarcely work well together, but this was before their signatures were fully developed. The writing is too staccato to feel like Kerouac, and too down to earth to feel like Burroughs, existing somewhere in between like a serviceable but forgettable middleman. In hindsight, a few glimmers of what these men would eventually become can occasionally be found, but they are too few and far between.
Writing style aside, the story as told simply isn’t that interesting. The majority of the story is Burroughs’ character lingering around lowlifes, or Kerouac’s and Carr’s characters trying—and failing—to get assigned to a merchant marine ship. Empty spots are filled with everyday mundanities with no bearing on the story (a character orders eggs at a diner, sends them back, then eats them)—a stylistic choice that certainly exists in their other works, but is more troublesome here because there’s an absolute lack of flair to the proceedings. There’s very little hint of things to come, and when the murder finally occurs, it comes from out of nowhere. Making matters worse, neither Kerouac nor Burroughs were present at the time, so the pivotal event upon which the entire story hinges happens off-page, which is historically accurate but far from interesting as far as plotting goes. They took certain liberties with the truth already, changing the murder weapon from a knife to a hatchet, for instance, so including one of the narrators at the crime—or switching to Carr’s POV for a single scene—shouldn’t have been too unthinkable.
It feels almost as if all of the complexities of the situation, and all the details that made it an interesting story in the first place, were purposefully stripped away. There’s an utter lack of nuance and emotion here, making And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks required reading only for those who have already read the rest of the canon and still require more fodder.