On August 14, 1944, Lucien Carr, a friend of William S. Burroughs from St. Louis, stabbed a man named David Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife and threw his body in the Hudson River. For eight years, Kammerer had fawned over the younger Carr, but that night something happened: either Carr had had enough or he was forced to defend himself.
The next day, his clothes stained with blood, Carr went to his friends Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac for help. Doing so, he involved them in the crime. A few months later, they were caught up in the crime in a different way.
Something about the murder captivated the Beats, especially Kerouac and Burroughs, who decided to collaborate on a novel about the events of the previous summer. At the time, the two authors were still unknown, yet to write anything of note. Narrating alternating chapters, they pieced together a hard-boiled tale of bohemian New York during World War II, full of drugs and art, obsession and violence, with scenes and characters drawn from their own lives.
They submitted their manuscript—called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks after an absurd line from a radio bulletin about a circus fire—to publishers, but it was rejected and confined to a filing cabinet for decades. Finally published, at long last, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks tells the story of Ramsay Allen and the object of his fixation, the charismatic, idealistic young Phillip Tourian. Phillip and his friends drink and dream in the bars and apartments of the West Village, until, with his friend Mike Ryko (Kerouac's narrator), he hatches a plan to ship out as a merchant marine. They'll catch a boat for France and jump ship, then make their way through the front to Paris.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is an engaging, fast-paced read that shows the two authors' developing styles. It is also an incomparable artifact, a legendary novel from the dawn of the Beat movement by two hugely influential writers.