Like that one guy said: Good writers borrow, great writers steal. Welcome to the place where all things have been lifted, looted, and otherwise pilfered…Remember, possession is 9/10s of the law.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is about a crime – a terrible crime – the worst kind of crime one person can commit against another. Yet, when reading the book, and even after acknowledging that the characters and details have been altered, I was struck that neither Burroughs or Kerouac took a position that favored one side (Kammerer as victim) or the other (Carr as perpetrator).
When Kammerer and Carr came to New York, Burroughs followed them. He was a friend of the murdered man – a guy who nowadays would be arrested for his attention toward: a.) a student and b.) a much younger boy. (An adult by this time.) But when Burroughs presents Al, Kammerer’s fictional representation, in all his obsessiveness, he does it with an air of acceptance for his friend’s flaws. Conversations like the following had my mouth dropping open:
‘Al sat there looking sad and ordered one beer and cold lobster. Finally he said, “I think I’ll go down there tonight and climb into his room.”
I spat out a lobster claw and looked at him. “Well,” I said, “that’s taking the bull by the horns.”
But Al was serious. He said, “No I’m just going to go into his room while he’s asleep and watch him for a while.”
“And suppose he should wake up? He’ll think it’s some vampire hovering over him.”
“Oh no,” said Al in resigned tones, “he’ll just tell me to get out. This has happened before.”’ ~from Chapter Five of Hippos, Burroughs’s chapter
(This kind of behavior bothered me in Twilight too, and I find it hilarious that Burroughs hit that nail dead-center decades before the vampire phenomenon.)
Burroughs takes his friend’s stalking tendencies in stride. And he’s not the only one aware of this situation. Phillip (the Carr character) asks Ryko (the Kerouac character) to help him get outta town, away from Al’s attentions. Ryko agrees, and tries to get Phillip onto a merchant marine ship as a crewman…but he also tells Al what Phillip is up to. It’s not a big deal to these guys at all.
It’s easy to blame the attitude difference on time difference. Kerouac and Burroughs weren’t bombarded with the daily talk shows on stalking, child molestation, and the consequences of a set-up like this. I could maybe let their laissez faire point of view go if I used the “It was a different time” argument…but it’s still hard not to yell at the characters for being blind morons. Their attitude definitely is different, and I think it has more to do with the beat of the Beats than it does with whatever time may have elapsed between then and now.
Their philosophy of life has to be understood if a reader is really going to understand what they wrote about and, in turn, how they wrote about it.
According to Kerouac’s essay “Lamb, No Lion” in Good Blonde and Others, “Beat doesn’t mean tired, or bused, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of the heart.”
In other words, it’s about the search for joy in everything – including junkies, bums, murderers, etc. In the search for peace, there is no hating on people. So, after the character of Phillip hatchets the character of Al to death, Burroughs encourages him to confess, but doesn’t pass judgment. It’s because of the Beat belief. It pops again and again in Kerouac’s work…even here in the earliest work.
Just one more example to help clarify the Beat philosophy/attitude/way of being, here’s Kerouac, in his essay “The Origins of the Beat Generation”: “Recently Ben Hecht said to me on TV ‘Why are you afraid to speak out your mind, what’s wrong with this country, what is everybody afraid of?’ Was he talking to me? And all he wanted me to do was speak out my mind against people, he sneeringly brought up Dulles, Eisenhower, the Pop, all kinds of people like that habitually he would sneer at with Drew Pearson, against the world he wanted, this is his idea of freedom, he calls it freedom. Who knows, my God, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty.”
Aside from the fact that he’s not really accepting Hecht for himself…Kerouac says that haters are gonna hate and he’s not a hater. (I do wonder what he would think of the current political smackdowns that go on….)
Anyway, to hear Kerouac present and/or defend himself in his own words, here’s a clip from the Ben Hecht interview: