Years before Burroughs and Kerouac catapulted to respective literary fame with Naked Lunch and On the Road, the two men collaborated on a fictional retelling of a real-life case of murder that is only now seeing the light of day. In 1944, a drunken brawl spurred their friend (and future influential Beatnik) Lucien Carr to kill David Kemmerer, whose ongoing advances he had spurned, and the resulting fracas — in which both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested as accessories to the crime because neither reported it to the police — resulted in this hard-boiled tale of Manhattan’s grimy, sexually teeming underbelly. Alternating chapters, the two young writers fashioned a novel with prose so spare, atmosphere so thick, and language so bone dry it would have been right at home with the Gold Medal or Ace Double paperback-original houses, had they existed at the time. There’s some eerie foreshadowing as Burroughs’s stand-in, “Will Dennison,” rejects complex emotional entanglements with the female sex by wondering “why can’t we do away with women altogether,” while some characters mock the half-French ancestry of “Mike Ryko,” shared with his alter ego. Hippos, summarily rejected by publishers upon the manuscript’s completion more than 60 years ago and more or less dismissed by both writers thereafter, should be considered more an entertaining (if somewhat melancholic) curiosity than a standout achievement on either writer’s part. Diehard Kerouac and Burroughs fans, however, should seek this volume out for its insight into what these brash young talents would later become.
About the Writer
Sarah Weinman is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. Her writing on crime and narrative has appeared in The New Republic, Hazlitt, The Nation and many other publications.