Butterfly in the sky? I can go twice as high!
Where Awesome Happens Book Review 2.0: And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
This book was an uber-doozie. It's also my favorite kind of book. Namely, the kind of book that is about a topic you had never heard of, and after the book is over makes you want to go research that topic and read 4 other books about it.
Before I get to the review itself, I'll set this up a bit. Kerouac and Burroughs are two of the "Big Three" Beat Generation writers, (Allen Ginsburg, being the other) and this book was published in 2008, despite Burroughs dying in 1997 and Kerouac dying in 1969. So for this book to be just coming out, is like what it would be like for Jazz fans if a collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday were just discovered. The book was written in 1945, while these two writers were still completely unknown and was rejected by publishers. As Burroughs was quoted in the Afterward, regarding no publishers being interested, "And it hindsight I don't see why they should have been. It had no commercial possibilities. It wasn't sensational enough to make it [...] from that point of view, nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it [from] a purely literary point of view. It sort of fell in-between. [It was] very much in the Existential genre, the prevailing mode of the period, but that hadn't hit America yet. It just wasn't a commercially viable property."
Further pushing back the publishing date is that this is a VERY slightly fictionalized account of an actual murder, between two friends of theirs. In short, what happened was that the murderer (Lucien Carr), who remained friendly with both authors all his life (and theirs), outlived both of them. The estates of Burroughs and Kerouac both promised Carr that the manuscript would not be published in his lifetime. After doing 10 years for the murder, Lucien Carr went on to be a regular family man and hold down a successful job as a news publisher, where virtually no one who knew him was aware of his murdery past.
To me, all of that was just as interesting as the book itself. It was kinda like watching the new Star Wars movie where you're thinking "Wow, a NEW Star Wars movie that not everyone has seen yet!". The book is written in short chapters that alternate being written by Burroughs (from his character Will Dennison's point of view) and Kerouac's (from his Mike Ryko point of view). Much like on Dragnet, the names have been fictionalized to protect the innocent. Well, and the guilty, too I guess. It takes place in WWII New York in 1945 and is basically a biography of a group of beatnik writer friends who never have any money but somehow keep finding enough money to get drunk and party-hop, nonetheless.
Reading the book with no a-priori knowledge of the ending, you'd never know it was a book about murder. Which I suppose, is probably very realistic in a lot of deaths in life- you don't always see the writing on the wall for months leading up to it. Sometimes they surprise you. This wasn't much different; you get some young drunk kids, one of which seemed to be an annoyance to the other, and strange things can happen under those circumstances. The murder occurs in about the third-to-last chapter, then the final chapters deal with how the murderer should turn himself in and that's it.
Like a lot Beat Generation writing, this isn't so much about plot intricacies or surprise endings, but about how it was written, the imagery and the pace of the book. It's fast, hip, crisp, lots of dialogue and makes you feel like you are actually there with them, and not having a boring author report to you in a flowery way about the events. It serves very well as a period-piece for 1945 New York City.
In regards to the actual events of the murder. The afterward does a better job of expanding upon it than I will here, but it happened when they were all very young. Kerouac was like 22, Ginsburg 19, Carr was 17, and Burroughs was 30. Ish. Then the guy that got murdered was like 33-ish. So they were all very young, and the murder had a significant impact on the future writings for Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsburg, and it more or less represented an enormous loss of innocence for all parties involved.
I'd label this book as highly recommendable. If this were purely fiction by two authors I'd never heard of, it would still be a good read. But given it's authors, it's half-century delay in writing, and the interesting story it tells, it all makes for a great story outside of the book as well.