Book review: And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs

Faith Jones
6 min readSep 12, 2022


And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, is a formerly lost book, which is a must-have category simply because you can’t have it. Rarity value is obvious in the commodities market (food, metals) but demand is illogical too because if cormorant poos were impossible to find, they’d be worth more than gold to a collector. Go figure. Book collectors are sometimes immensely eccentric, so desired titles like this one stir an inner frenzy. Is that why I bought it?

Just in case you are one of those people who raid ancient tombs and are looking for something really valuable, sneer at the art, knock aside that gold, sweep those diamonds into the drain and train your eyes to light up on anything made of papyrus or paper. Books are lost for various reasons, like book burning, flood or the almost ready novel that J. Meade Falkner left on a train, but here are a selection of titles that probably mattered: The lost books of Euclid, probably containing the first mathematical proofs since the Babylonians (Books vii, viii, ix and x); Homer’s Margites; The 10 lost Books of the Bible (9 gospels and The Book of the Covenant referred to at Exodus 24:7); Shakespeare’s Cardenio; Inventio Fortunata (theory of the North Pole, the magnetosphere and the continents — written in the 14th century); Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder; Aristotle’s Second book of Poetics (on comedy); the 84 lost plays of Aeschylus; Cicero’ s four tragedies in the Greek style: Troas, Erigones, Electra; The Book of Thoth; Cleopatra’ s Lost works (cosmetics, medicine, magical properties); and Jane Austen’s Sanditon.

However, after an interval of decades (just long enough to compose the previous paragraph), this is a novel that was found. Would a summary of the ‘reminiscence’ be helpful, borrowing some details from the Afterword? Ok (incidentally, the history of why OK means everything is alright has also been lost to history). Ok again:

Kerouac was being interviewed in his home at Lowell Massachusetts by 3 poets (Berrigan, Saroyan, McNaughton) in 1967 for an article due to appear in The Paris Review. He was asked about his supposed first novel, The Town and the City, but contradicted the question by admitting it was not his first novel, just his first published novel. The three poets were shocked. He told them he’d co-written the earlier book (alternating chapters) with William S. Burroughs. The three poets personally wet themselves. Berrigan said he had heard rumours but, but… then Kerouac revealed an address and described where the manuscript lay, sealed under a floor board. Why was it hidden? Perhaps because both Kerouac and Burroughs were accessories to a real murder and were arrested for both assisting the killer and their inaction, not identifying him to the police at the time like good citizens were supposed to.

Hippos is also a murder story based on truth (gosh), written by two of the most famous authors of the Beat movement (Kerouac of On The Road, Burroughs of Naked Lunch, wow) who were friends of the murderer and murdered and helped dispose of evidence. The story depicts by another name the acknowledged king of the Beat generation (Ginsberg).

Is it a good book though, worth the cover price of twenty pounds, or is it cormorants? To some extent, I find that delusion of the avid reader and collector, i.e. confusing what you actually need with what you desperately want, more interesting than the contents of this book, peopled by characters who continually delay any action, lounge about, wallow in substances, crunch on wine glasses to look different, do a circuit of each other’s flats just to sink hospitality and speak in such short, careless sentences. It’s a prototype by two authors who, some twenty years later, will both become really good.

It is also a period piece, documenting what life was like for educated semi-wasters on the safe side of the ocean at the stern end of WWII. Should they do their bit and sign on a ship (not for patriotism but as a means to go AWOL in newly liberated Paris) or hang around here and have another drink? Have another drink and prevaricate over starting work, obviously, until there’s no money left to borrow and they are forced to contribute as reluctant deck hands in the merchant marine. Even that becomes a busted flush.

There’s an early sight of unionisation and the creeping designs of communist recruitment in the labour market. There’s a depiction of gay culture of both varieties being accepted as normal (by the authors), when straight characters’ friends are often gay or fluid. However, the murderer Phillip is straight in this fiction (based on Lucien Carr IV) but that person was bisexual in real life and had documented affairs, e.g. recollected in later years by Ginsberg. The authors described Carr’s inclination as the former to the Police (evidence given in real life) so Carr could use the defence that he was being sexually harassed by a lovelorn elder gay (David Eames Kammerer IRL) and had defended his honour by killing the queer with a weapon (a hatchet in fiction, a boy scout knife in the real crime). Carr’s defence was accepted by the justice system, that alone being an insight into the churchgoing mentalities of USA 1944, then Carr got 3 years in psychiatric detention instead of the electric chair.

In the end, this novel represents an insight, a reflection, into a moment of bare history. It is undisguised in terms of what the city was actually like for these young men and women but then disguised in terms of protecting real people behind false identities. One of their friends kills another of their friends but nothing much is altered, still friends, non-judgemental, life and death being aspects of a big city undercurrent in a time where a greater scale of death (war) was disconnected somehow, beyond the horizon. Is this reaction to a killing normal, an existential shrug, or are the authors differently conditioned to you and I? Where are their feelings or is it all boxed up for later, when there’s been time to process events? I mean, what should happen when your friend blatantly murders your friend and drops the body off a seven storey building, apart from asking them to hold the action right there while you fetch the popcorn?

The language is never forced or strained, just casual conversation interspersing realms of observed detail, never exaggerated for effect, as they pass unhurried through this languid world. The two narrators’ description must have been lived through and anecdotal because it’s too real to have been imagined.

The reader will get more out of this book if they know the context around the murder case, the Beat movement, how the authors were interrelated to the suspect/victim, what the authors went on to do and how the USA as a whole was gradually changed by protest, wealth and population change. Kerouac and Burroughs rise slightly above the straight white prejudicial environment they are showing us to be the background of the 1940s by holding no opinion, not just on the gay stigma thing but also writing of the troop ship SS America sinking in the North Atlantic, where the black cook is saved on a lifeboat surrounded by drowning soldiers calling for their mothers. Differences, details and prejudicial spin don’t occur to them.

If society treats killing a non-conformist as a lesser crime than killing a conformist, did Kerouac and Burroughs withhold cooperation with law enforcement because they knew that they too were non-conformists? Whether it be sexual orientation, colour and race or left wing politics, are all of these characters in the same boat — not quite American enough for the establishment to dignify with equal treatment? Times, they are a changing. Now these attributes are a positive advantage to your career, in the new age of rule by social justice and preferential discrimination. I digress, as usual. Whether you think this is visceral or casual intellect, it’s a good story to find under the floor boards.