Joyce Johnson had her first innings as the author of the subculture classic Minor Characters, in which she shared with the world what it had been like to move among the lesser gods in that long ago era named Beat.
Now she tells the beginning and in some sense the end of that story, rushing past her affair with Jack Kerouac to concentrate on the childhood that preceded it and the two marriages that followed.
Johnson’s grandfather was a poet and a suicide. Both her husbands passed on, making her twice a widow. She connects these dots but obliquely, off the page almost. There’s something about trying to grow up and cope with empty spaces, the spaces between the squares in a large canvas.
After her alcoholic artist husband Jim Johnson was killed in a motorcycle accident, possibly a suicide, she recalls how “I’d hesitate on the corner of Twenty-ninth Street, wondering whether to walk east or west, uptown or down, as if I were trying to solve a philosophical problem.” In the early days of her new relationship with painter Peter Pinchbeck, a friend told her “You seemed to be sleepwalking.” Anyone who has experienced a break-up or tragic loss can readily put herself in that picture.
Johnson told her when he first met her that “I’ve been in Painesville” – his hometown – and she replied archly, “We’ve all been in Painesville.” Significantly, the author points out, Johnson was forced to give up his children and become another missing man. Significantly, his was the name she kept.
Before the husbands and Kerouac, there was her mother, the fatherless child who became a stage-mom, enthusiastically grooming her daughter to be an actress from an early age. Little Joyce Alice Ross never made it much farther than understudy, a shadow life that afforded reflected glamour and perennial hopes that the other kid would fail. Eventually she realized she was not actress or musician but a passing good writer with a talent for editing. She made money at it and stuck with it through the many passages of her life. Arguably her steady income and her ability to sustain a career made the men in her life possible, men who had raw ambition but no magnificent prospects. One suspects she paid most of the bills.
This book is quiet and, like Minor Characters, seems built around small happenings among the near-great and the almost-weres. But it is a well-written life, and the syntax sings. Aspiring writers, women with memoirs to recount, would do well to study how Johnson puts prose on the page.