Bookreview: And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Junky I discovered this book by Burroughs among the books dubbed as crime novels in my local public library. It was probably labelled as such because there is a murder in it and I don’t think the library has a label for literature as such. So it would be the most logical choice from their viewpoint, but somehow this label doesn’t fit the book.
From the introduction and comments I gather that Burroughs and the co-writer Jack Kerouac were part of a literary movement called the Beat generation and that this book was written before they became famous. In fact the book was published after they both died because it was deliberately put off. It was the wish of one of the people involved in the murder that it would not be published in his lifetime. It ended up as being published in nobodies lifetime..
The result of the delay at publication was that the book gained a mythical state. Like many things that are unknown it peeks the interest, gains notoriety and heightens expectations.
But what were the results?
The book seems a lot like Junky, with the same down-on-their-luck types as feature in that book, but a little bit less criminal. Most of the people are poor and some are the brink of crime. The best term to define them is: a bunch of freeloaders. They live on the money others make and they get that money by borrowing and not paying back, gaining it in a half legal way or by outright crime. For example: one of the characters pawns the diamonds of a relative, pocketing the money for himself, without letting the relative know.
Most of the book describes this freeloader life from various angles and against this backdrop is set the awkward semi-gay relation between a young man and an older man that finally ends in a death. The book is however not a crime novel. There isn’t a real upbeat towards the killing, nor any investigation or anything else that is part of a crime novel. The murder itself and the aftermath actually are only a small part of the book and occur well in the end. It feels almost as and anti-climax when it does, which it probably will be for anyone attracted to crime novels. The murder isn’t what the book is about.
But what is?
The charm of the book is the writing, which is to the point and frugal. Just like in Junky there is not a word too much it this book and no beating about the bush. The story is told straight and without any moral justification from the writer. Crime happens, people steal, someone gets robbed. It all is told in the same way as the writer tells that people had a bite, took a leak or banged their girlfriend.
The characters in the book have opinions of course, but nothing is morally weighted by the writer. Everything is told as it happens, to the point. It is almost clinical.
I like the writing style as a way to learn how to write. The shortness of the book combined with a efficient writing style made it readable.
The problem I foresee for me is that much more of this will start to bore. If a bigger book would be filled with just more scenes of freeloading then such book will become a tedious read. It does make me curious about the books that made Burroughs famous. I assume there must be a lot more to them.

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Book review: Junky by William S. Burroughs

JunkyJunky by William S. Burroughs My rating: 4 of 5 stars Junky is a horrid book. The focus of this novella is the shallow and deplorable life of the drugs addict as he ambles through life to get to his next fix. Burroughs’ book is unmitigated, the focus is the constant struggle with addiction, for an addict is torn by two opposing desires; to get his fix and to kick his habit.

If this was a movie then the camera would be constant on Burroughs, thinking of ways to get money to get a fix, trying to get a fix, suffering before and after, then trying to get rid of it, actually succeeding in getting clean up for a short while and then falling back into his old life in no time at all. In the mean time he is constantly experimenting with an ever increasing selection of drugs to find that heavenly kick on the cheap. Sometimes you wonder where he gets the money or what social life he has except for hanging out with his junky buddies or being high or strung out. At times he tells us a few things. Like he has a kind of allowance that gives him a certain yearly income. And at one time he buys a farm with a buddy that eventually earns him a profit that evaporates when he wastes it all on his addictions. Sometimes we get a glimpse of other people. He is married, for at times, especially when he is in Mexico, his wife puts in an appearance. But these are just brief excursions, for the camera gets yanked back to focus on him. It is a lurid life.

The lines between users and pushers(sellers) is blurred as users start pushing to be able to fund their addiction(s). Sometimes they turn informer for the police, when they get arrested and strike deal or for money. Or just for any other reason. Burroughs tells us, in a matter of fact voice, how these addicts degenerate morally, turning to all manners of illegal behavior such as stealing or robbing drunks. This degeneration of morals even affect certain doctors, nicknamed croakers, who write out prescriptions for them so they can get a shot of morphine knowing fully well that they actually do not need them for what morphine is meant for.

Shocking are the experiments with new drugs. In their desire for a next fix and due to the constant lack to fund their addiction they are willing to try anything that might seem to suffice. Almost anything that could be taken for a drug is tried out eventually. It is not a nice book to read and sometimes you want to put it down because the life of these people are so dreary, shallow and shockingly grotesque. But somehow you keep on reading, perhaps because you assume that their must be some kind of end. A closure. There is one and it is better not to tell much about it, just that it is not what I would have expected.

This books reminds me somewhat of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. The latter has more story perhaps, but there is similarity in the way they describe the lives of addicts. No doubt because Dick was an addict himself and knew what he was writing about, like Burroughs. Although I do not think this is a book to ‘enjoy’ it is no doubt a book to read just to get an idea about what it must be to be an addict. And perhaps that is the major strength of this book, especially if you are an aspiring writer and want to get an glimpse of the life of a drugs addict, without going through the experience yourself.

I was hovering between a 3.5 and a 4. View all my reviews