And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks is an early work of the Beat Generation, written in the winter of 1944-45 by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac together, or separately in that they take it in turns throughout the book to write the chapters, a book not published in their lifetimes, and probably of interest only to scholars and fanatics.
The writing is competent but neither writer has come into his own yet. There are places where an editor might have stepped in and suggested some changes, but it being published so late, and neither writer still living and able to reply, it was presumably decided to leave such imperfections alone, which, in the early work of writers such as these, who went on to write such great books, can only lend a certain charm to the work. In the “Afterword”, the editor James Grauerholz seems to confirm this when he writes that he has “endeavoured to present these writings according to the authors’ own intentions, insofar as those can be discerned.”
The title is strange, and is explained in Chapter 4, in which Kerouac describes the “unctuous relish” with which a newsreader, heard on a radio as some of the characters drink in a bar, describes a fire at a circus in which hippos perish in the manner described. It has little or no bearing on the story itself, which is about the murder of David Kammerer (“Ramsay Allen” or “Al” in the book) by Lucien Carr (“Phillip Tourian”), except insofar as both are tales of death and cruelty, told with equal relish. “We had fun doing it,” said Burroughs.
I love a title like this, the sheer self-indulgence of it, giving no clue as to the subject-matter of the story itself, offering no assistance to the reader who is trying to decide whether to pick up the book or not. A kind of aristocratic disdain for the reader, who’s going to read the book or won’t, it makes no difference. Often writers are not so courageous – not so privileged, one might say – since they want readers in order to make money: a title will be quite literal, or at least a little bit suggestive of the subject matter of the book, so that a reader knows what they’ll be getting and can make an informed decision. But a weird title like this can be almost a work of art in itself, a generous gift from the authors in that it perhaps will give a flicker of strange pleasure to a reader, even one who never picked the book up and will only ever know the title. “You’re welcome,” it seems to say, even as the once potential reader moves on and picks up something else.