Today's Book Review

Joyce Johnson Minor Characters 304pp. Penguin. 9780140283570

Minor Characters is the story of two years in Joyce Johnson's life, when she met and fell in love with then-unknown Jack Kerouac (who would become famous, literally overnight, a few months later). A privileged and sheltered young woman, raised in the stiflingly proper environment of upper-West-Side New York, Johnson began to make bold forays into the Village as a teenager. There she met writers like Allen Ginsberg, who set her up on a blind date with Kerouac. (She paid. And then he moved in with her.) There was no map for women like Johnson in 1950s America, women who were trying to make their own lives on their own terms. "Those of us who flew out the door had no usable models for what we were doing," she writes in the foreword to the book's 1994 edition. "We did not want to be our mothers or our spinster schoolteachers or the hard-boiled career women depicted on the screen. And no one had taught us how to be women artists or writers. ... Naturally, we fell in love with men who were rebels... believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures... Once we had found our male counterparts, we had too much blind faith to challenge the old male/female rules. We were very young and we were in over our heads. But we knew we had done something very brave, practically historic. We were the ones who had dared to leave home."

Not challenging the old male/female rules means, for Johnson's peers, making sometimes unbearable choices; though she survived her youth, others were not so lucky. William Burroughs's wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, died at the age of 28, shot by her husband in Mexico. Allen Ginsberg's lover, Elise Cowen, killed herself in 1962, also at the age of 28. Less dramatic but intensely difficult was the life of being a Beat woman, an equal only as long as the boys let you into their circle. ("Men are always disappearing on Carolyn into the attic, leaving her with the dishes," Johnson says of Carolyn Cassady.) Being sexually active in a time when unmarried women had no access to birth control meant that back-alley abortions were a fact of life. There's not a bitter or self-pitying sentence in this book, but it's more than clear that the cost of freedom is far higher for Johnson than it is for Kerouac. Johnson coolly juxtaposes her own abortion (which I read, appropriately enough, as HR-3 was clearing the House) with Kerouac's now-legendary solo stint at the Desolation Peak fire lookout. She doesn't comment on the irony; she doesn't have to. Her escort to the doctor she manages to find--after weeks of searching--is not Kerouac, but "a young man who had a weird hobby--taking girls to get abortions. He'd ask you if you wanted to recuperate after at his house on Fire Island. You were advised to say no."

Amidst the seriousness, there are moments of very real humor. Johnson writes of her job as an assistant to a literary agent: "My office identity seemed as precarious as my hair style. Someday they would find me out. I had broken the law, I had slept with men, I had contempt for the books the MCA literary Agency was attempting to sell to publishers. The lives of my superiors seemed desiccated rather than enviable. Only the publication of my novel would transform my existence into what I wanted it to be." (Later, she writes, "Someday the publishers who would not have me as a secretary would have me as a writer." Here's to that, indeed.) Every sentence in this book shines, whether she's relating a funny anecdote about Allen Ginsberg or laying bare the fraught atmosphere of the house she grew up in. Her insight into the men she chose to spend her youth with, her dispassionate observations of their flaws--and her sweetly sad reminiscences of their charms--are beautifully rendered.

There are books that are lovely, books that are well-written, books that are incisive portraits of the time and place they describe, and Minor Characters is all of those things. But it's also a book that hit me full force in the gut, the kind of book that showed me so much of my own life in stark relief, perfectly rendered across miles and generations by a total stranger. And though many things have changed since Johnson's perilous journey out of her parents' house into the rebellious world of the Beats, many more things haven't. For anyone who has ever tried to inhabit simultaneously the identities of "artist" and "female," this book is like the cool, collected older lady you sometimes are lucky enough to meet at parties, the lady with all the secrets, the lady who knows the stories of your own life before you tell them. Johnson movingly portrays Jack Kerouac as a brilliant person who is both real and lovable. But more than anything, this book is about falling in love with someone who is no more talented than you are but for whom the world will open up in a way it will never open up for you; because the world will always see you as a woman first and an artist second. And that, I can tell you, is something that hasn't changed at all.