Frogs and Locusts
“Feeling like the only sane man in a nuthouse,” 30-year-old William S. Burroughs writes with a weary noir sigh, “doesn’t make you feel superior but depressed and scared, because there is nobody you can contact.”
The provocation for this sober observation is an evening at MacDonald’s Tavern in New York’s Greenwich Village, circa 1944. Burroughs, writing as Will Dennison in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, describes MacDonald’s as “a queer place … packed with fags all screaming and swishing around.”
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs
A Beat Memoir
Epithets like “queer”, “fairy”, “fag”, “wop”, and “nigger” are sprinkled throughout the body of this lean and dark pulp fiction offering like stray leaflets from a long-forgotten Klan rally. The insertion of the slurs is more than just a field observation of common vernacular in 1944, it’s a sign post of societal marginalization in America 65 years ago, when the nation was fighting a war in two theaters of combat, Europe and the South Pacific, defending a homeland that was largely racist, homophobic, misogynistic, morally and intellectually bankrupt, and riddled with collective anxiety that was only occasionally relieved by sudden outbursts of domestic violence, bloody bar room brawls, and little murders. Jack Kerouac, writing in the voice of merchant seaman Mike Ryko, describes a typical night at home:
Then I turned quickly sideways as she brought her knee up to my balls. She followed up by punching me on the side of the face with her hard, thin knuckles. So I k-norcked her one with the palm of my hand.
There was a small table by the side of the bed that had a big ashtray heaped with cigarette butts and ashes on it, and books, papers, an alarm clock, empty glasses, bottles of perfume, nail files, a deck of cards, and a container of talcum powder. Janie hit the edge of the table on her way down and it tipped over so the contents spilled over on her. She was lying there spitting out cigarette butts, with ashes and talcum powder all over her face and her dress up over her knees.
“You bastard!” she screamed. “You’re trying to mar my beauty!”
This is not Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation but, rather, Hunter S. Thompson’s Generation of Swine, the urban home front during the waning days of World War II, gritty and unvarnished, and chillingly reflective of modern sociology. There was a feral madness in the air 65 years ago, just as there is today. Everyone knew that the war abroad was going to end soon, once the Allied forces overwhelmed France, a reality that hangs over the novel like a portent of doom, but what nobody seemed to understand was where the United States would head next.
More than merely a long-unpublished collaboration between soon-to-be Beat icons William Seward Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks forces the reader into an uncomfortable re-examination of American life at a crossroads, then and now.
“If you want to see what it really takes to boot the economy out of a debt trap,” noted economist Paul Krugmam writes in a 16 February 2009 editorial in the New York Times, “look at the large public works program, otherwise known as World War II, that ended the Great Depression. The war didn’t just lead to full employment. It also led to rapidly rising incomes and substantial inflation, all with virtually no borrowing by the private sector. By 1945 the government’s debt had soared … (but) this low level of private debt helped set the stage for the great post-war boom.”
The post-war boom that Krugman references, with its heavy emphasis on credit and the lending of vast amounts of money to consumers and businesses that may never be able to repay the debt, has recently exploded in our faces like a lust-starved Mugwump after a decades-long vow of abstinence, creating a ripple effect of anxiety, unease, fear, and anger.
We have, in essence, finally come full circle after almost six decades, turning a corner into a blind alley and walking smack-dab into a mirror image of ourselves, credit-crazed zombies with the dropping eyelids of a Burroughs morphine addict, hungover from the post-war boom, slogging through a nightmarish netherworld of “treacherous … pushers and addicts, thieves and whores”, which is precisely how Joyce Johnson describes Greenwich Village in the late ‘40s in her Beat memoir, Minor Characters.
Leaving the “queer” MacDonald’s Tavern for the evening (“Where are all the women in this fucking town?” a drunken sailor growls at Dennison/Burroughs as he slouches through the door), Will, who works as an operative for a detective agency and as a bartender, fencing hot merchandise for petty criminals as a sideline, ambles down New York’s Seventh Avenue and happens across an argument outside the front door of another bohemian enclave.
The proprietor of the bar, Burroughs notes, is “standing in the doorway arguing with three people he had just thrown out of the joint.” One of the three men repeatedly demands better treatment because he writes stories for the Saturday Evening Post.
“I don’t care what you do. I don’t want you in my place. Now beat it,” the proprietor says, and he advances on the group. The three men shrink away, but when the proprietor turns to go back inside, the man who writes for the Saturday Evening Post steps forward again and the whole process is repeated.
“I had the feeling that all over America such stupid arguments were taking place on street corners and in bars and restaurants,” Burroughs observes.
All over America people were pulling credentials out of their pockets and sticking them under someone else’s nose to prove they had been somewhere or done something. And I thought someday everyone in America will suddenly jump up and say “I don’t take any shit!” and start pushing and cursing and clawing at the man next to him.
If that last line sounds familiar, it’s because Burroughs presages by almost 35 years the now-classic Paddy Chayefsky line from the prophetic movie Network, delivered by Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the lunatic messiah of network news: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Without a doubt, Burroughs was a cultural anthropologist and a social visionary; writing as an absolute beginner in Hippos, Burroughs outpaces his eager young collaborator (Kerouac was 23 when the book was conceived and written) with long, loping, and self-assured strides, pushing the syringe deeper into the vein, peering into the air-conditioned nightmare yet to come, elevating what was intended to be a dime store crime novel into the realm of sharp, keen-eyed social history and prognostication. In Bill’s world it is always 72 degrees and partly cloudy with a chance of frogs and locusts.
On 14 August 1944, 19-year-old Lucien Carr, a friend of Burroughs from his St. Louis days and room mate of Allen Ginsberg, stabbed a man named David Kammerer twice in the heart with a Boy Scout knife and dumped his body in New York’s Hudson River. Carr would later plead guilty to second-degree murder, claiming self-defense against unwanted homosexual advances, the so-called honor defense. Mike Evans provides some background on the complex Carr-Kammerer relationship in his valuable and colorful study, The Beats:
Sixteen years older than Carr, who was just ten at the time, Kammerer was the latter’s scoutmaster at a St. Louis Boy Scout group. A homosexual, he had developed an obsession for the boy, befriending him, and then following him through his teenage years as he moved from school to school, and then college, via Massachusetts, and Brunswick, Maine, to the University of Chicago. Kammerer would take any menial job “to pay his way” on his odyssey but although he made sexual advances to Carr, they were never returned. Instead, Lucien quickly learned how to manipulate his always-compliant admirer who, while not necessarily his favorite person, was certainly a most constant friend. So, after he moved to Columbia in fall 1943, having dropped out of Chicago earlier in the year, David Kammerer was in tow as usual, with a job washing dishes in Greenwich Village, where he also rented an apartment on Morton Street.
Carr finally had his fill of Kammerer’s stalker-like devotions, stabbing him to death in Riverside Park in the warm pre-dawn hours in 1944, drawing his friends Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac into the incident when Carr, his clothes stained with blood, sought out their support and advice. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested for failing to inform the police (Jack was also most certainly an accessory-after-the-fact, having disposed of the murder weapon in a storm drain).
Burroughs’s parents put up the $2,500 to secure his release, but Kerouac lingered in the Bronx City jail until agreeing to a shotgun wedding to his girlfriend Edie Parker. Edie’s mother loaned the young couple the bail money after the marriage vows were taken in a short ceremony at the city Municipal Building, with two NYPD detectives standing by as witnesses.