Book Review: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks


Goodread synopsis:

More than sixty years ago, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac sat down in New York City to write a novel about the summer of 1944, when one of their friends killed another in a moment of brutal and tragic bloodshed. Alternating chapters and narrators, Burroughs and Kerouac pieced together a hard-boiled tale of bohemian New York during World War II, full of drugs and obsession, art and violence. The manuscript, called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks after a line from a news story about a fire at a circus, was submitted to publishers but rejected and confined to a filing cabinet for decades…

As I was reading:

p.36 – “There are a lot of different characters and agendas to keep track of and quite a few anachronisms. Still, it’s an interesting read so far.”

p.51 – “This book has ruined Twilight for me forever. I’m now imaging Al instead of ‘Edward’ standing in an oblivious person’s bedroom and it’s just creepy and funny and oh so wrong… #stalker-alert”

When I was done:

The story is based on Kerouac and Burrows’ own experiences, in 1940s New York.  In Kerouac’s own words this book is “a portrait of the ‘lost’ segment of our generation, hard boiled, honest and sensationally real” and by the end of the novel many of its colourful characters are either addicts, dead, in jail or in the army…  Don’t take this to mean that the novel is fast paced though, for – as the publisher freely admits on the jacket – it only “haphazardly drifts” towards its climax and so may bore or frustrate some readers.

I liked this book, but there was very little suspense built into the plot.  It read like a series of interrelated anecdotes – which were amusing and at times dramatic, but rarely thrilling.  So it was the historical and bibliographical tidbits in Hippos, which really captured my imagination, rather than the plot.  The ‘real’ characters, who inspired the fictional ones portrayed within its pages (Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr etc) are still as interesting to read about now, in 2015, as they’ve ever been.

 I’m now trying to decide whether I should watch the related 2013 film Kill Your Darlings, thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Book Review: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

  1. Great review! Sounds like it would fit for someone intensely interested in the aforementioned subjects, or for someone who wants more of an intellectually quirky read, rather than a focused plot.

    • There isn’t as much interest in it now, as there once was – when it was just a ‘rumour’ hidden under JK’s floorboards! I haven’t seen many reviews of it elsewhere either. 🙂

    • The title is explained mid-way through the book, in the form of a radio announcement discussing a zoo fire, where “the hippos were boiled in their tanks”. The book definitely has a surreal quality to it; in the first chapter several of characters ‘eat’ their champaign glasses!

  2. I’ve not heard of this book before, but can definitely see the appeal of it! And I like how you’ve shared your thoughts whilst reading the book, the Edward comment had me laughing out loud Great review! 🙂

    • I’m sure that’s why publishers initially rejected the manuscript. Still, it offers good insight into the origins of the Beat Generation in NY.

  3. Being a Kerouac and Beat enthusiast I enjoyed the book very much. Not sure how well it stands on it’s own when not being read as required scholarship. Also, same may be true for Kill Your Darlings. I did enjoy the Ginsberg and Carr characters, not so much Kerouac’s.

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