Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

by William S. Burroughs

The legendary unpublished collaboration between William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, a hard-boiled crime novel about a shocking murder at the dawn of the Beat Generation.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date November 10, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4434-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date November 11, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1876-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $24.00

About The Book

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 dropped the body into the Hudson River. Kammerer had long fawned over the younger Carr, making romantic advances that, for a time, it seemed Carr didn’t mind. But after six years as the older man’s protégé, either Carr had had enough or he was forced to defend himself. The next day, his clothes stained with blood, he went to his friends Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac for help. Doing so, he caught them up in the crime. The two were arrested for failing to inform the police, and a few months later, they were drawn to the crime in a different way.

Something about the murder, with its echoes of Verlaine and Rimbaud, captivated the Beats. Burroughs and Kerouac decided to collaborate on a fictionalization of the events of the summer of 1944, a crime novel in the style of Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. They alternated chapters, Burroughs writing as Will Dennison, a bartender steeped in the criminal underworld and Kerouac as Mike Ryko, a hard-drinking merchant marine in dirty chinos. For the title, they settled on a line from a news report they had heard one night while sitting in a bar near Columbus Circle. A circus in Hartford, Connecticut, had caught fire and the radio announcer ended his piece by stating “and the hippos were boiled in their tanks.”

At this point, the writers were far from famous. Burroughs had written next to nothing, and Kerouac, though he had churned out hundreds of thousands of words, had met with little success–it would be five years before his first novel was published. When they submitted the novel to publishers, it was rejected by all, and sat unpublished for decades.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is an incomparable artifact from the early days of the Beats, a fascinating piece of American literary history, and a remarkable window into the personal lives of two hugely influential writers at the very beginning of their careers. It is also an engaging novel, a hypnotic descent into lust and obsession, drugs and alcohol, art and outsized dreams.


“The appearance in print of And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac is a literary event, not only because it drew two of the three leading Beat writers into confederacy, but because the book told a story . . . of male friendship, gay obsession, and murder . . . that came to fascinate a score of American authors . . . It’s a fascinating snapshot from a lost era. If you’re looking for the link between Hemingway’s impotent post-war drifters in The Sun Also Rises, the barflies and Tralalas of Last Exit to Brooklyn and the zonked-out kids of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, look no further.” —John Walsh, The Independent

“[A] persuasive portrait of la vie boheme in all its aimlessness and squalor.” —Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

“A combination hard-boiled murder mystery and existentialist lament on the meaninglessness of modern life—think Dashiell Hammett meets Albert Camus . . . an essential document of the Beat Generation—filled with precise details and precisely recorded dialogue from a place and period, pre-Atomic Age America, now almost irretrievably lost to us. . . . But Hippos is more than just a debunking of the standard histories of the period. It contains the first clear expression of the core Beat vision of America as insane and morally corrupt—a vision as apt and accurate today as it was when these outcasts and marginal outlaws began to emerge from their societal exile some 60 years ago.” —Gerald Nicosia, San Francisco Chronicle

“Reveal[s] two giants-to-be in the development stages of their craft. . . . With its evocative rendition of now-vanished saloons, bygone diners, and other landmarks of yesteryear, Burroughs and Kerouac may have inadvertently done for 1944 Greenwich Village what Joyce did for 1904 Dublin.” —George Kimball, The Phoenix(Boston)

“In alternating chapters, Burroughs and Kerouac serve up a noir vision of Manhattan . . . Of the two, Kerouac, then in his early 20s, is the more developed writer, though Burroughs, an absolute beginner, already shows some of the interests and obsessions that will turn up in Naked Lunch and elsewhere, to say nothing of an obviously field-tested understanding of how syringes work” For his part, Kerouac recounts wartime experiences in the Merchant Marine, along with notes on the bar scene that would do Bukowski proud.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[Hippos] significantly predates Kerouac’s major novels and illuminates his dynamic and productive literary friendship with William S. Burroughs. . . . it is very charming. . . . The conceit of switching back and forth between narrators every chapter also keeps things speeding along—it creates the illusion that one is listening to a radio broadcast from one station, only to have the frequency changed every few minutes, with the narrative sometimes overlapping and the two voices bleeding into another.” —Andrew Martin, Open Letters Monthly

“Illuminates the links between Sam Spade and Sal Paradise, noir nihilism and Beat exuberance.” —Timothy Hodler, Details

“A literary curiosity, a genuine collectible.” —Carolyn See, Washington Post

“If you care about either of these beat masters . . . I don’t see how you can fail to enjoy [And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks]. Slight as it may seem at first glance, it’s an invaluable document of literary history, glimmering with nascent genius.” —Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News

“Naughtily sexual and emotionally grimy, written is a prose style that is deadpan-dry and larded with hardboiled atmosphere. This oddly titled novel is an engaging literary and historical curio.” —Richard Labone, Between the Lines

“Spellbinding. . . . with spot-on dialogue and descriptions of seedy bars and jam-packed apartments, the authors serve up a fascinating look at a time of late night parties, casual sex and a devil-may-care approach to life.” —Jackie Crosby, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“An eccentric, engaging, and readable novel . . . What makes the novel particularly fascinating, however, is its ability to provide a window into the early autobiographical styles of both Burroughs and Kerouac as emerging, unpublished writers.” —Marcus Niski, The Sydney Morning Herald

“As an insight into the formative years of the Beats, it’s fascinating.” —Nick Rennison, The Sunday Times (London)


Selected as a December ’08 Indie Next List title (formerly Book Sense)



THE BARS CLOSE AT THREE A.M. ON SATURDAY nights so I got home about 3:45 after eating breakfast at Riker’s on the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. I dropped the News and Mirror on the couch and peeled off my seersucker coat and dropped it on top of them. I was going straight to bed.
At this point, the buzzer rang. It’s a loud buzzer that goes through you so I ran over quick to push the button and release the outside door. Then I took my coat off the couch and hung it over a chair so no one would sit on it, and I put the papers in a drawer. I wanted to be sure they would be there when I woke up in the morning. Then I went over and opened the door. I timed it just right so that they didn’t get a chance to knock.

Four people came into the room. Now I’ll tell you in a general way who these people were and what they looked like since the story is mostly about two of them.

Phillip Tourian is seventeen years old, half Turkish and half American. He has a choice of several names but prefers Tourian. His father goes under the name of Rogers. Curly black hair falls over his forehead, his skin is very pale, and he has green eyes. He was sitting down in the most comfortable chair with his leg over the arm before the others were all in the room.

This Phillip is the kind of boy literary fags write sonnets to, which start out, “O raven-haired Grecian lad …” He was wearing a pair of very dirty slacks and a khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up showing hard muscular forearms.

Ramsay Allen is an impressive-looking gray-haired man of forty or so, tall and a little flabby. He looks like a down-at-the-heels actor, or someone who used to be somebody. Also he is a southerner and claims to be of a good family, like all southerners. He is a very intelligent guy but you wouldn’t know it to see him now. He is so stuck on Phillip he is hovering over him like a shy vulture, with a foolish sloppy grin on his face.

Al is one of the best guys I know, and you couldn’t find better company. And Phillip is all right too. But when they get together something happens, and they form a combination which gets on everybody’s nerves.

Agnes O’Rourke has an ugly Irish face and close-cropped black hair, and she always wears pants. She is straightforward, manly, and reliable. Mike Ryko is a nineteen-year-old, red-haired Finn, a sort of merchant seaman dressed in dirty khaki.

Well, that’s all there were, the four of them, and Agnes held up a bottle.

“Ah, Canadian Club,” I said. “Come right in and sit down,” which they all had anyway by this time, and I got out some cocktail glasses and everyone poured himself a straight shot. Agnes asked me for some water which I got for her.

Phillip had some philosophical idea he had evidently been developing in the course of the evening and now I was going to hear about it. He said, “I’ve figured out a whole philosophy on the idea of waste as evil and creation as good. So long as you are creating something it is good. The only sin is waste of your potentialities.”

That sounded pretty silly to me so I said, “Well of course I’m just a befuddled bartender, but what about Lifebuoy soap ads, they’re creations all right.”

And he said, “Yeah, but you see, that’s what you call wasteful creation. It’s all dichotomized. Then there’s creative waste, such as talking to you now.”

So I said, “Yeah, but where are your criteria to tell waste from creation? Anybody can say that what he’s doing is creation whereas what everybody else is doing is waste. The thing is so general, it don’t mean a thing.”

Well, that seemed to hit him right between the eyes. I guess he hadn’t been getting much opposition. At any rate he dropped the philosophy and I was glad to see it go because such ideas belong in the “I don’t want to hear about it” department as far as I’m concerned.

Phillip then asked me if I had any marijuana and I told him not much, but he insisted he wanted to smoke some, so I got it out of the desk drawer and we lit a cigarette and passed it around. It was very poor stuff and the one stick had no effect on anyone.

Ryko, who had been sitting on the couch all this time without saying anything, said, “I smoked six sticks in Port Arthur, Texas, and I don’t remember a thing about Port Arthur, Texas.”

I said, “Marijuana is very hard to get now, and I don’t know where I’ll get any more after this is gone,” but Phillip grabbed up another cigarette and started smoking it. So I filled my glass with Canadian Club.

Right then it struck me as strange, since these guys never have any money, where this Canadian Club came from, so I asked them.

Al said, “Agnes lifted it out of a bar.”

It seems Al and Agnes were standing at the end of the bar in the Pied Piper having a beer when Agnes suddenly said to Al, “Pick up your change and follow me. I’ve got a bottle of Canadian Club under my coat.” Al followed her out, more scared than she was. He hadn’t even seen her take it.

This took place earlier in the evening and the fifth was now about half gone. I congratulated Agnes and she smiled complacently.

“It was easy,” she said. “I’m going to do it again.”

Not when you’re with me, I said to myself.

Then there was a lull in the conversation and I was too sleepy to say anything. There was some talk I didn’t hear and then I looked up just in time to see Phillip bite a large piece of glass out of his cocktail glass and begin chewing it up, which made a noise you could hear across the room. Agnes and Ryko made faces like someone was scratching fingernails on a blackboard.

Phillip chewed up the glass fine and washed it down with Agnes’s water. So then Al ate a piece too and I got him a glass of water to wash it down with. Agnes asked if I thought they would die, and I said no, there was no danger if you chewed it up fine, it was like eating a little sand. All this talk about people dying from ground glass was hooey.

Right then I got an idea for a gag, and I said, “I am neglecting my duties as a host. Is anyone hungry? I have something very special I just got today.”

At this point Phillip and Al were picking stray pieces of glass out from between their teeth. Al had gone into the bathroom to look at his gums in the mirror, and they were bleeding.

“Yes,” said Al from the bathroom.

Phillip said he’d worked up an appetite on the glass.

Al asked me if it was another package of food from my old lady and I said, “As a matter of fact, yes, something real good.”

So I went into the closet and fooled around for a while and came out with a lot of old razor blades on a plate with a jar of mustard.

Phillip said, “You bastard, I’m really hungry,” and I felt pretty good about it and said, ‘some gag, hey?”

Ryko said, “I saw some guy eat razor blades in Chicago. Razor blades, glass, and light globes. He finally ate a porcelain plate.”

By this time everyone was drunk except Agnes and me. Al was sitting at Phillip’s feet looking up at him with a goofy expression on his face. I began to wish that everybody would go home.

Then Phillip got up, swaying a little bit, and said, “Let’s go up on the roof.”

And Al said, “All right,” jumping up like he never heard such a wonderful suggestion.

I said, “No, don’t. You’ll wake up the landlady. There’s nothing up there anyway.”

Al said, “To hell with you, Dennison,” sore that I should try to block an idea coming from Phillip.

So they lurched out the door and started up the stairs. The landlady and her family occupy the floor above me, and above them is the roof.

I sat down and poured myself some more Canadian Club. Agnes didn’t want any more and said she was going home. Ryko was now dozing on the couch, so I poured the rest in my own glass, and Agnes got up to go.

I could hear some sort of commotion on the roof and then I heard some glass break in the street. We walked over to the window and Agnes said, “They must have thrown a glass down on the street.”

This seemed logical to me, so I stuck my head out cautiously and there was a woman looking up and swearing. It was getting gray in the street.

“You crazy bastards,” she was saying. “What you wanta do, kill somebody?”

Now I am firm believer in the counterattack, so I said, ‘shut up. You’re waking everybody up. Beat it or I’ll call a cop,” and I shut off the lights as though I had gotten up out of bed and gone back again.

After a few minutes she walked away still swearing, and I was swearing myself, only silently, as I remembered all the trouble those two had caused me in the past. I remembered how they had piled up my car in Newark and got me thrown out of a hotel in Washington when Phillip pissed out the window. And there was plenty more of the same. I mean Joe College stuff, about 1910 style. This happened whenever they were together. Alone, they were all right.

I turned on the lights and Agnes left. Everything was quiet on the roof.

“I hope they don’t get the idea to jump off,” I said, to myself, because Ryko was asleep. “Well they can roost up there all night if they want to. I’m going to bed.”

I undressed and got into bed, leaving Ryko sleeping on the couch. It was about six o’clock.