By Monica Wendel
Last weekend – an icy one in which I was batting that energy-draining combination of hangover and new-semester cold – a friend pressed a copy of Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters into my hands. “You have to read it,” Shane said above the noise of the dive bar’s music. Low candles flickered. My boyfriend Chris sat nearby. Shane did her best to summarize the plot of the book: Joyce Johnson was Kerouac’s lover when On the Road came out, but was a prodigy in her own right, starting at Barnard before her sixteenth birthday and scoring a book contract at the age of 21.
“You should read Kerouac,” I said. (As the former writer in residence at the Kerouac House, I am required to say this whenever anyone mentions him.)
Shane listened, but continued explaining her newfound love; one of Joyce Johnson’s books is out of print, and she was on a mission to find it. I’m glad I listened to her, devouring Minor Characters in a day and a half. Kerouac is practically a sound bite, like Bob Dylan selling cars in a Super Bowl commercial, but Johnson? Johnson is something else: sharp, tender, and observant. She stands on the outskirts of the action, yet in it, watching herself and yet not seeing herself. Shane was right. At four a.m., unable to sleep, I found myself dog earing pages:
“Adversity didn’t bring people together. Wrapped in my sensibility, I wept in the neighborhood luncheonettes. My sadness seemed overwhelming but valuable – the stage you had to pass through to get to some greater wisdom.” (95)
“In some way I wanted to serve notice I was no longer the child he took me for. Somewhere inside me, waiting to make her appearance any minute now, was the person I really was.” (85)
“She loved, but was bent on leaving, Alex – no one quite understood why … She wasn’t even leaving him for another man, but for something so crazy and inexplicable she was naturally going into analysis to get at the root of it: the need to be alone.” (60)
“I’d learned myself by the age of sixteen that just as girls guarded their virginity, boys guarded something less tangible which they called Themselves. They seemed to believe they had a mission in life, from which they could easily be deflected by being exposed to too much emotion.”
All of those sentences come from before Johnson meets Kerouac, about halfway through the book. Their relationship is not the central struggle in the book, thankfully.
Instead, we follow Johnson in the late 1950s as she struggles with sexual freedom, access to contraceptives and abortion, and sexism in writing and publishing. These issues, over fifty years later, are (obviously) better but still unresolved, and that’s where the fierce energy comes from: as a writer, I read wondering how Johnson figures these things out, in hopes that I will find some sort of road map for myself.
Or, that’s not right: her struggle is her own, not mine, and I have no right to take it as a rallying cry.
Or, no, that’s not quite it either: women were an integral part of the so-called “Beat Generation,” a fact largely ignored today.
Or, Johnson’s words speak best, as she goes to Canarsie for an abortion, a scene written with such tenderness and control that it did for me what no bumper sticker could do. On diaphragms, she writes:
“‘I’ve got it!’ a girl screams down from a third-floor window in Hewitt Hall my senior year at Barnard. ‘Come on up! I’ve got it!’ She has it in a jar that she hides beneath her underwear in a dresser drawer. It’s a little cup made of brownish rubber, dusted with cornstarch lest it crack. She lets it out and shows it to Elise and me, this illicit thing – contraband. You buy a ring in the five-and-ten before you go to the Margaret Sanger clinic, and then you just make up a married name, why the hell shouldn’t you? She’s ready now. She has the key to everything.”
But Johnson isn’t all bravery: “I can never quite bring myself to go to Sheila’s clinic. It’s odd what you have courage for and what you don’t.”
She’s nineteen at the time of this scene, twenty-one when she meets Kerouac. But after all that has happened to her by that point, all of that living, she seems much older; not jaded, simply deeply intelligent and curious. She is our guide through this world, and we trust her completely.
On how she became pregnant:
“Sometimes you went to bed with people almost by mistake, at the end of late, shapeless nights when you’d stayed up so long it almost didn’t matter – the thing was, not to go home. Such nights lacked premeditation, so you couldn’t be very careful; you counted on a stranger’s carefulness.”
I desperately wanted to show that passage to whatever New York Times columnist is busy bemoaning our so-called “hook-up culture,” as though teenagers with cell phones were the first generation to discover sex without love. But I was too busy following Johnson from the Upper West Side down through the streets of Brooklyn as she decides to terminate the pregnancy:
“But as for blaming this boy – I didn’t. I knew I had somehow let this happen to me. There had been a moment in that bedroom on Ninety-sixth Street, a moment of blank suspension, of not caring whether I lived or died.”
This scene is a stronger indictment of sexism than any anecdote, misdeed, or cruel comment thrown Johnson’s way. The awfulness of sexism is this erasing of a person’s consciousness, a laboring to make a woman somehow less than. Because Johnson articulates the casual and institutionalized sexism so well, the moments when it becomes part of her stand out all the more.
There is much, much more that I loved. Minor Characters has an accurate, memorable sense of place, and when reading descriptions of the 1950s East Village I wondered if she had secretly stuck in a description of contemporary Bushwick, my current neighborhood, with its “nondescript district of warehouses and factory lofts … An area with an industrial rawness about it, proletarian, unpretty …” The book also travels to Northport, a Long Island fishing village one town over from where I grew up.
And I haven’t even gotten to her friendship with Elise Cowen, the Barnard classmate who introduced Johnson to Allen Ginsberg and his crew. Her darkness and eventual death is an undertone throughout the book, and is more important – and touching – than Kerouac’s death. Johnson treats her characters with love and forgiveness.
After all, so much of growing up is the eagerness to grow up, the desire to make something. We do things in the hope that who we are will follow those actions: that if we act cool we will, eventually, be cool; that if we watch and write we will eventually be a writer. Wanting and doing. Being and making. The brick walls of Barnard and the forgotten women, not only of the Beat generation, but of generations before. The foreignness of a “rubber,” meticulously researched. And what it feels like to be part of a family, a family with members you have not yet met, bound in time and place, one that can never be perfected or “gotten right” but can, thankfully, be remembered.
–Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review Press, 2013) and the chapbooks Call it a Windowand Pioneer (Thrush Press, forthcoming). She is assistant professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.