[20 March 2009]
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.”
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.
William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, 1953
With the publication of his first novel, the Thomas Wolfe-inspired The Town and the City, six years ahead of him, Jack left New York City shortly after his release from jail, joining Parker and her family in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Burroughs returned home to St. Louis. But by October 1944 both men were living in New York once again, Burroughs, perhaps, for the stimulation he craved from total immersion in the gay and criminal underworld (Mike Evans writes in The Beats that Burroughs’s “interest in the criminal world was motivated by his long-held belief that only experiencing the downside of life without moral restriction could lead to true fulfillment”).
Kerouac returned to the vibrant city because the marriage to Edie collapsed after only a few weeks, and the prospect of working on a Michigan ball-bearing assembly line to repay the debt to Edie’s mother was almost too much to bear. Only a few months after returning to New York, Burroughs and Kerouac began working on the manuscript for And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.
The Phallic Boy Scout Knife
This is all the stuff of literary legend, of course, and has been explored extensively by Beat era biographers, beginning with Ann Charters’s Kerouac: A Biography in 1975, followed by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s fascinating Rashomon-like oral history, Jack’s Book, in 1978, and Dennis McNally’s Desolate Angel in 1979.
Long before the biographers resurrected the murder scandal, however, the Carr-Kammerer tale seized the fevered imagination of the intellectual underground. James Grauerholz, executor of the Burroughs estate, writes in the afterword to Hippos:
Allen Ginsberg was among the first to try his hand at making literary hay with the Carr-Kammerer story: in late 1944 Allen wrote many notes and chapter drafts in his journals for a work that he considered calling The Bloodsong. Ginsberg’s now-published journals include those writings, with many vivid scenes between him and Lucien and lively depictions of the Carr-Kammerer-Burroughs circle. Ginsberg’s reconstruction of the ultimate encounter between Lucien and Dave that night is the most detailed, and possibly the most realistic, of all the dramatizations of Kammerer’s final hours.
In November 1944, though, the assistant dean of Columbia, Nicholas McKnight, discouraged Ginsberg from continuing because the novel was “smutty” and because the school did not want more notoriety from the crime (which happened, almost literally, in their backyard). Grauerholz continues:
By fall 1944 Allen’s friend the student poet John Hollander had already written a “Dostoyevskian” story about the killing for the Columbia Spectator, and the juicy details proved irresistible to many other writers in those years. Some version of the affair turns up in novels and memoirs written in the 1940s, or later, by Chandler Brossard, William Gaddis, Alan Harrington, John Clellon Holmes, Anatole Broyard, Howard Mitcham, and even James Baldwin – who is believed to have used the characters for a story he called Ignorant Armies, a very early version of his gay-themed 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room.
It doesn’t require a long stretch of the imagination to suppose that many writers saw classic tragic elements to the story akin to the passionate entanglement of Verlaine and Rimbaud or even Romeo and Juliet, sprinkled with delicious Freudian morsels: the murder weapon was not only a knife (not quite as phallic as a handgun but writers work with what’s on their plate) but a Boy Scout knife (plenty of twisted conclusions to reach there). A stabbing, naturally, is about as phallic as you can get in terms of choosing a method of murder and one could reasonably argue that Carr, in killing his gay pursuer, Kammerer, was symbolically slaying his own deeply homosexual instincts. What journal-toting, ink-stained flinger of words from the intellectual underground could resist such a story?
By the time Burroughs and Kerouac formed the incident into fiction in early 1945, the story, under their collaborative guidance, became something different entirely: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, redolent with many of the themes that would preoccupy Burroughs’s later work, is a droll and matter-of-fact meditation on the casual nature of violence in modern society (emphasized by the almost shockingly cavalier manner in which the murder occurs in the third act of the Burroughs-Kerouac narrative arc) that carries with it all of the pathos of a violent three-strip Technicolor MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon from the 1940s, if the script had been provided by Kerouac and Burroughs. It’s no small accident that the title for the work derives from a 1940s news radio broadcast about a fatal circus fire.
“These horrific, absurd, grimly comic scenes were just the sort of thing that Burroughs found excruciatingly funny,” notes James Grauerholz.
Not long after completing the unpublished manuscript for Hippos, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg would go on to write and publish the three books that became the cornerstone for the Beat movement: Howl and Other Poems for Ginsberg (dedicated to Lucien Carr) in 1956, On the Road for Kerouac in 1957, and Naked Lunch for Burroughs in 1959.
The three men remained maladjusted iconoclasts their whole life, desperately avoiding the lures of the postwar lifestyle that falsely offered comfort, inner peace, a home in the suburbs and a two-car garage. They stayed on the margins and casually sidestepped the nasty pile-up that most certainly would emerge from the credit-driven postwar boom (Kerouac provides two moments in the novel that involve raging House and Senate debates on how to manage the economy and the nation’s future after hostilities cease).
Who knew it would take 65 years for the whole thing to come undone and then turn back on itself like a serpent engorging itself on its own tail? Here we are in 2009 reading headlines that recall the very same years that Burroughs and Kerouac recorded masterfully in this effort. Just this morning, before sitting down to complete this column, I scanned this sub-header in a New York Times front page story:
“In a bleaker assessment than those of most private forecasters, the World Bank predicted a shrinking of the global economy for the first time since World War II.”
Those last eight words are appearing in news stories about the economy with alarming frequency: For the first time since World War II.
An utterance by Phillip Tourian, the fictional version of Lucien Carr in Hippos, haunts me every time I hear those words: “You know, don’t you, that things drag along just so long and then something happens.”
Who knows where our modern day Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg are hiding, perhaps scribbling in journals in one of the homeless encampments that are growing outside of California’s state capitol in Sacramento, or tapping away at a laptop in the dim light of an abandoned home in New Orleans or standing in line with thousands of other hungry, hollow-eyed applicants for a slim handful of jobs on a federally-funded infrastructure project in Florida.
We are not exactly sailing into uncharted waters here, but until our new artists arrive to help us understand what we have done to ourselves, it would probably be best to heed the words of Henry Miller, a writer who wielded great influence on the Beats:
“I am against revolutions because they always involve a return to the status quo.”
Rodger Jacobs has won multiple awards and grants for his work as a journalist, documentary writer and producer, screenwriter, playwright, magazine editor, true crime writer, book critic, columnist, and live event producer. He provided the preface and original inspiration for Jack London: San Francisco Stories (Sydney Samizdat Press) in 2010.