Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson is such a delightful surprise that I’m disappointed it took me so long to get around to reading it. I should confess that my exposure to the Beats is limited to the occasional poem or quote. I have not read On the Road or Naked Lunch although I did read Burroughs’ Junky.
Not being the type of person who is enamored with the whole Beat scene, I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy or even appreciate Johnson’s memoir. I needn’t have worried. I loved reading about Johnson’s growing up in Manhattan, near Columbia where Ginsberg and Kerouac were soon to become notorious. Her excursions to Greenwich Village learning to play guitar much to her mother’s chagrin was fascinating for me because she was writing about an experience that preceded my own by a decade. The memoir ends, for all intents and purposes, in the same year I was born.
I have to say that I love the way Johnson draws not only from her own immediate experience but parallels what is happening in the lives of other people. When she is hanging out in Washington Square park, Kerouac is on the road going to meet Neal Cassady and escape NY. These “meanwhile, back on the ranch” asides serve to contextualize and contrast Johnson’s experiences with those of the men in the Beat movement. She was younger and admittedly more bourgeois. She tries to conform herself to the lifestyle but never quite aligns herself with the expectations and freedom implied. Caught between the stark conservative 1950s and the extreme liberalism of the 1960s, she sways in the balance of the bohemian and the banal which adds an interesting tension to her memoir. Had Johnson been so cautious as to stay too far removed from Kerouac et al the memoir would have likely been more judgmental. Had she immersed herself too fully she would have sounded narcissistic or even nihilistic.
It is that dilemma of going to work as a typist and getting high, of wanting love and indulging in lust, of facing the sober truth while wanting to believe in fantasy, that makes this memoir a compelling read. Kerouac comes off as sympathetic mostly because the reader is never allowed to forget that Johnson was so young and incredibly naïve when she was in her relationship with him. Doomed from the beginning, it is hard not to wonder if any of the women who people these pages are not doomed. Edie Parker, Elise Cowen, Hettie Jones are all paired with someone significant but never participants in the significance. Manipulated by the Peter Pan inability to grow up, these women love their men and devote themselves to them unquestioningly. Johnson is able to show how easy and understandable such choices are in her own experience with Kerouac, constantly getting drawn into his fantasies of what he will do and create. His frequent invitations for her to leave NY and join him are almost always followed with his relocating, forcing Johnson to readjust her own plans to accommodate his fancy free spirit irresponsibility.
Kerouac comes off as incorrigible but also charming. How Johnson manages to do this is beyond me but is a testament to her talent. She admits that his misogyny is evident in his writing as well as in how he approaches relationships. The doomed nature of her own relationship with him is clear from when they first meet and he whispers in her ear that she is not his type. She knows he is not going to stay and she never allows herself to fully believe in their relationship as fully coupled. Yet, she doesn’t believe it is transient, a manifestation of her own transition from daughter to woman to mother.
It is odd how much I carried away from this book. Her willful ignorance, knowing that Kerouac made no promises to her, is something I see in relationships all of the time. What Johnson does is show how easy it is for women, anyone really, to close their eyes to the obvious in hopes of seeing something better, something they hope will be there but isn’t. And what Johnson further manages to do is show the hopelessness of her relationship with Kerouac without ever sounding bitter or betrayed. Remarkable and worth reading.