What really happens in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks? Mostly, a small group of broke, young, unmotivated artists tromp around New York City in the mid-1940s. Young Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs unite, alternating chapters. They bring you the carefree, postwar air that surrounded them. They write the story that ends with the murder of one of their friends in 1944. However, this wasn’t enough ground to get the manuscript published in 1945.
The actual text of this book is not particularly absorbing, which is probably why it was rejected by Simon & Schuster, along with a few other publishers, in 1945. If it can be said that the book has a plot, it is fairly uneventful and repetitive. But in 1945, the book lacked several assets that it easily claims now: two prominent Beat poets’ names on the cover, and the place the book holds in literary history. Hippos predates any published books by Kerouac and Burroughs. Therefore, it stands today as their earliest work: a book one reads more out of historical and biographical interest than literary or poetic interest.
The book’s main characters, thinly veiled with pseudonyms “Mike Ryko” (Kerouac) and “Will Dennison” (Burroughs), document their daily goings–on: conversations with friends over drinks, errands, what they eat, who they mooch from, etc. By the end of the book, the character names that get tossed around are familiar, but not emotionally charged, like the names of classmates after the first month of school.
As a book, regardless of its authors, the story lies in the description of the events that lead up to the murder. Their sentences are short, honest, and mundane, with a flavor of Beat generation “detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions” (Kerouac). The text doesn’t try to impress its readers, Kerouac’s chapters even less so than Burroughs’s. Neither of the authors departs very frequently from a relaxed storytelling-between-friends style. “Phillip and I woke up at noon the next day.”
Hippos frames the artist culture in New York City during the tail–end of World War II. It lightly touches upon both the role of the artist when “Phillip” (the murderer) remarks, “The ultimate society has to be the completely artistic society. Each of these artist-citizens must […] complete his own spiritual cycle.” Through their conversations, the characters scratch the surface of racism, the war, authority, and constantly remind the reader how broke they are, by choice. They spend what money they do have on alcohol, contributing to Mike and Phillip’s repeated failure to board a ship going overseas. They continue this pattern until the murder occurs.
Even for a reader without interest or knowledge of the Beat poets, the book jacket summary may draw readers with its mention of David Kammerer’s murder. It may seem that the book’s main purpose is to tell a version of the murder story, but when the event happens in the book, a climax to fit a murder never comes. The murder is briefly and modestly described, and the book ends quickly afterward. Any disappointment is assuaged by James W. Grauerholz’s afterword in which he divulges the factual story of the Kammerer murder.
Hippos was not written to dramatize a murder. It is not a thrilling suspense novel, nor is it fiction. It is a book written by two young men on the verge of their long, legendary writing careers; the Hippos manuscript that went unpublished for 63 years is the immediate reaction of two men whose friend was murdered. Though its existence is better summarized as an historical artifact than good literature, it is worth reading and investigating for this very reason.