In the shadows

Posted on April 5, 2006


By Darran Anderson

Neil Young once said that he got fed up with the middle of the road so he headed for the ditch where it was much more interesting, interesting in part because of the characters you meet there. There’s a common misconception that those in the limelight are the most appealing players in culture. But heroes are boring; all too often they’re one-dimensional preening egotists, filled with narcissism and self-loathing (which are essentially the same thing). Heroes let you down. The characters in the shadows, in the dark recesses are almost always the most intriguing. Take Shakespeare. There are vast libraries of books analysing Hamlet’s inaction or Macbeth’s ambition but frequently the really fascinating characters are those we only get glimpses of and whose stories remain largely untold: Iago, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Macbeth’s doorkeeper, Caliban. These are the individuals who continue to play on the imagination long after the plays finish. Joyce Johnson is also one. As a writer and former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac her memoir captures her time on the fringes of the Beat movement, that remarkable ‘one-twentieth’ of her life. The great twist in this tale is not that Joyce Johnson was one of the minor characters of the title but that Jack Kerouac was, pushed by to the side of his own life by fame, loneliness and a magnetism to self-destruction. In a compelling, revelatory book, she conjures up a world of ghosts with gripping, evocative writing that matches the best of the Beats word for word.

The world Johnson describes is a distant twilight one; steam rising from the gutter, the lights of Times Square in the distance, the sound of basement jazz clubs floating into the all-night cafes. Outside of Edward Hopper paintings it’s unreachable to us but to Johnson, then in her teenage years, the proximity of these streets exacerbated the usual frustrations and desires of teenage life, feelings that she captures magnificently here and yet with great restraint. Her boundless energies were pent up in the conservative household of her parents where “sex was like a forbidden castle whose name could not even be spoken around the house, so feared was its power.” Back then the world and all its adventures were a frontier stretching ahead of them all and you almost envy them then with their thrilling discoveries ahead, when today the years of lads mags and moronic slebs have almost managed to do the impossible – make sex and hedonism appear boring. It would be wrong though to romanticise the daily hardships particularly those endured by women. Capturing the ‘values’ of the times Johnson recounts one scene that sums up the shameful institutionalised chauvinisms of the day. Arbitrarily sacked without explanation (“Why don’t you leave like a good girl?”) her friend Elise Cowen was dragged from her workplace by the police and punched in the stomach for having the nerve to demand an explanation.

The turning point came for Johnson when she chanced upon that devastating line of Thoreau‘s, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Horrified by the thought of being “just a very ordinary person” she could see her parents encapsulated in that quote and if she stayed there she was doomed too to a life of ‘quiet desperation.’ This was a time when bohemian was not a fashion but a lifestyle and a way of seeing the entire world and so, though troubled by feelings of invisibility and not being mysterious enough, she bravely broke away to a life on her own. Soon she fell in love with the energy of the bustling metropolis of New York and the wonderful maddening randomness of things. She gravitated to the Waldorf and its regular clientele of “artists, poets, communists and anarchists, guitar-players, jailbirds, scavengers,” a place where “ideas flashed by like silver freight trains that wouldn’t stop at your station to unload but had to push on to a vanishing point in the distance.” While we now think of that generation as the Beat Generation Johnson reminds us that they were in fact the Silent Generation. Baptised so by sociologists they lived in the shadow of the previous generation (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway etc) who had enjoyed the Roaring Twenties. “The twenties were much closer then, almost touchable” she recounts “there was the sense of having missed out on something, of having been born too late.” And yet they refused to be silent, these handful of outlaws and friends who single-handedly turned the Silent Generation into one synonymous with words and music. It is an inspiring proposition and inevitably leads you to think what generation are we and what generation could we be?

True to life she reaches the Beats by chance. In thrall to the magic of the big city, the “simultaneities,” she imagines in hindsight the thrilling, infuriating “possibility that we passed each other hundreds of times in our everyday comings and going.” The meeting finally comes through her friend Elise who has fallen for Allen Ginsberg. Elise is one of the ghosts of the book who Johnson manages to briefly bring to life, Elise whose middle name Nada meant nothing, Elise who even in their dearest, most light-hearted moments together is doomed to a future of madness and suicide. Her relationship to Ginsberg is ill-fated from the beginning, not least by the fact that he is a rampant homosexual: “Elise was a moment in Allen’s life. In Elsie’s life, Allen was an eternity.” It was in one of Ginsberg’s photographs that Johnson first set eyes upon Kerouac looking “sad and wild.” She was in her early twenties, he in his mid-thirties, their meeting delayed by the fact that Jack was somewhere in the heights of Desolation Peak, camped out in a look-out’s cabin, looking for “the void.”

Decades have passed since then but touchingly Johnson still remembers what she wore on the cold winters night that she first met the young writer. Ginsberg had set them up on a ramshackle blind date, Kerouac having just returned from his mountain hermitage. Having ended up buying the penniless writer dinner Johnson was nevertheless immediately transfixed by his charisma and goofiness remarking that in that late night diner “he’s the only person…in colour.” In Desolation Angels Jack hints at his first impression of her, “A Jewess, elegant middleclass sad and looking for something” and it occurs to you how strange it must be to have the thoughts of a partner towards you and a private shared moment recorded in a book that millions of people will read. Whatever he stated in his books he never revealed the true depth, or lack, of his feelings for her. For a person so open, who seemed to document everything in his odysseys and diaries he was curiously impenetrable, the real fundamentals always remained hidden behind his heady narratives, his vulnerability veiled behind his machismo. The Jack that Johnson fell in love with was many things – a quiet mysterious, lonesome guy and then “the exuberant, outrageous Jack whom I’d only seen traces of now and then. Mad Jack, impossible Jack. The dark young man rushing out with his manuscript, rage in his blue eyes.”

She noted all he seemed to need in his travels and existence was a sleeping bag, a knapsack, jeans, some old shirts, notebooks for writing, sketches, one for dreams, concluding there was, “something heartbreakingly attractive in these few essentials to which Jack had reduced his needs.” Unlike her parents he was neither a slave nor rooted to possessions or a career. For all his poverty he was free. The depictions of Johnson and Kerouac’s time together have the essence of tragedy, “in the darkness of the room we drift together as Billie Holiday bewails lost loves.” Her gentle lyrical reflections of her lover are almost unbearably poignant because you’re always aware that it’ll end in catastrophe, that young foolish enraptured Jack, “sad and wild” has only a few years left to live, already well on his “march to destruction,” that the prophet of the road to a whole generation will end his days washed up and drunk and that one day Joyce will be left with her ghosts.

One of the most admirable characteristics of the Beats was their authenticity, an attribute that is explored in Minor Characters. Today we have bohemians at play enjoying their gap year or slumming it as students for three or four years before surrendering to the world of mortgages and other petty domestic miseries. The Beats however were the real deal. When Kerouac had gone to the mountains to seek the void he did so not as a teenager but as a grown man in his thirties. Neither were the Beats some idle privileged group like the Bloomsbury set. On the contrary their lifestyles and adventures were rarely far from destitution. They were only one generation from the Great Depression and their travels across America were an echo of the earlier forced migrations of workers (brilliantly evoked and documented in Steinbeck‘s Grapes of Wrath). And somehow this group of friends would produce at least three undisputed, inspiriting masterpieces of the 20th century: Howl, Naked Lunch and On The Road. Yet even on the point of greatness Kerouac’s personal search for enlightenment seemed cursed, silently devastated by the suicide of Natalie Jackson, a friend who “jumped from a roof just a few hours after Jack had left her, having failed to comfort her by his insistence that life was just an illusion.” It’s hard to believe that his genuine faith in Buddhism from this point onward could be anything but a cold comfort.

Minor Characters not only gives tantalising glimpses into psyches and lifestyles of its populace but following true to it’s title it illuminates the dark corners of the story, those on the sidelines who are often overlooked but are integral to any real understanding of the times. Behind the romantic myths lies truth with all its imperfections and complexities. Retelling the familiar anecdote of Lucien Carr rolling Kerouac home inside a barrel Johnson avoids the traditional telling and instead imagines the scene from the perspective of Kerouac’s former girlfriend Edie Parker, “running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.” By doing so she not only brings the story to life from a fresh perspective but also gives a voice to one of those who history and the misogynistic Beats have silenced. Often unpleasant truths surface in the midst of long romanticised stories. Neal Cassady is portrayed not as the “side burned hero of the snowy west” bravely escaping the straight life but as a vaguely pathetic figure leaving his children and wife with the words, “Have a ball, kiddies, so long.”

In stark contrast to his heroic near-fictional depiction as Dean Moriarty in On The Road, he’s captured here as a flawed human being who’s, in that moment, at best irresponsible and at worst cruel and cowardly. Whatever his parenting skills Neal Cassady’s irresponsibility pales into insignificance next to William S. Burroughs, the ‘old Bull Lee’ figure so fawned over by Kerouac and co. Far from emerging as some valiant hero Burroughs is sidelined into being a minor character whilst his wife Joan Vollmer is brightly invoked. It says something that Johnson allows Vollmer, the most overlooked character of all, to burn brighter than her husband who not only airbrushed Vollmer from history but also literally wiped her out of existence playing William Tell with a revolver south of the Mexican Border.

By illuminating other sides to these often-idealised figures Johnson establishes one of the central themes of the book: the depressing paradox that the Beats, the 20th century’s most potent expression of romanticism, were so conservative and narrow-minded towards women. Whilst they shook off the shackles of conformity and sought freedom in all its forms they enthusiastically retained the misogyny of the old world. It appears real universal freedom demanded more than they could deliver. More than once they’ve been referred to as a Peter Pan-type gang of boys who never wanted to grow up and Johnson bears this out, asserting they were after “some pursuit of the heightened moment, intensity for it’s own sake, something they apparently find only when they’re with each other.” Despite promises to the contrary Kerouac didn’t let Johnson, or any woman for that manner, accompany him on his odysseys. There’s a magnificent scene in Minor Characters where she evokes the streets of Mexico where “doves circle the gilded dome of the cathedral. Gringos gone spectacularly to seed… sit on balconies sipping liquid fire.” Kerouac had been biding her down with promises, “We’ll do our writing and cash our checks in big American banks and eat hot soup at market stalls and float on rafts of flowers and dance the rumba in mad joints with 10cent beers.” Yet it never happened. Jack got sick and left a week before she was due. It’s one of many revelatory moments for Johnson, and the reader, demonstrating that a woman can be imprisoned not just in the role of a virgin or a whore, angel or femme fatale but also as a distant muse to be put on a pedestal and forgotten about. Though Johnson acknowledges the gravity of domesticity, which provided the Beats with a lame excuse to avoid real emotional contact with the opposite sex, it seems the Beats were neither brave nor mature enough to regard women as anything other than an attractive still life to be viewed from a distance. Freedom for them was a gentleman’s club.

For all the great times Johnson enjoyed with Kerouac there was much to lament in his behaviour towards her. At once a romantic and a philandering drunk, he’d phone late at night to kindly inform her that he was with another woman. In one particularly humiliating scene she recounts how he took her to the apartment of a lady he was hopelessly in love with. It seemed for all his transcendental calls for brotherhood and love he could easily act like a hard-hearted imbecile though Johnson is philosophical, “I hate Jack’s woman-hatred, hate it, mourn it, understand it and finally forgive.” Due to the fact the Beats wrote their own history (with a large degree of self-mythologising) tales of their infidelities are papered over along with the stories of their female companions. It’s regrettable that biographers have continued this trend in their scrambling desire to kneel at their altar. Johnson is mentioned once in the otherwise labyrinthine Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan, and then only to determine where Keruoac was staying at one particular point. Robbed of a voice for so long their very existence began to be eroded. Decades after his death Johnson passes an advertisement for Khakis featuring Kerouac. To the initial shock of seeing her departed lover featuring on a gigantic billboard was added the discomfort at knowing that she had once appeared in the original version of that very photograph but had been literally airbrushed out. Who was the real ghost it seemed to say? Kerouac or her?

In the days before the sexual revolution it wasn’t just relative isolation amongst her peers that Johnson had to endure. Society, that strange term which individuals hide behind to justify their prejudices, had little tolerance for a freethinking young woman who had dared to seek something more than the kitchen and church of her mother’s generation. Neighbours would shout to her as she passed, “Filthy beatnik, you you you! You, Miss, sleeping with the bums, we know!”

Worn down she got sick and briefly returned home but after three weeks she managed to escape its gravity unlike Jack who was already being sucked in towards his. Though consistently modest Johnson comes across as genuinely courageous in bearing the brunt of society’s prejudices and being able to carry on when iconic figures could not.

Once you’ve touched bottom, what was there to be afraid of anymore? I was continually lonely, but very fearless. Life seemed grey but not impossible.

“Thousands were waiting for a prophet to liberate them from the cautious middle-class lives they had been reared to inherit” Johnson points out. On one side there had been money, boredom, respectability, death or at least a form of living death. On the other side was rebellion, excitement, exploration, in short life. The Beats pointed the way. The Sixties followed.

It’s of the bitterest irony that the prophet of this sea change would die washed up and renouncing it all, just as his way of life was being adopted by an entire generation. There’s Kerouac at the height of the hippie counter-culture, drunk as fuck and slurring his words on a talk show, the audience laughing at him, a man once so eloquent reduced to incoherence, a man once so enlivened with a spirit of adventure cursing his heirs as communists and freeloaders. There he is in his mother’s house in St Petersburg Florida, only forty-seven yet foul drunk, bloated and embittered, couch-bound watching The Galloping Gourmet on television, then staggering to the bathroom where he will fall onto his knees and begin to vomit blood. Drowning in his own blood he will die the next day after twenty-six transfusions in a hospital surrounded by old people. What happened? Where did it all go wrong?

Joyce Johnson’s allusions throughout Minor Characters add up to perhaps the most compelling and insightful explanations for the self-destruction of Jack Kerouac. In his letters to her from Tangiers, from a storm-wracked ship off the coast of Africa, from Mexico the sadness is already there, seeped in him for all his awe towards the world. In a sense this was part of the problem – the old chestnut about those who feel the highs being condemned to feel the lows just as intensely and dramatically. There are certainly suggestions that he felt too much, was too sensitive, where others could laugh things off or give the cold shoulder Jack saw betrayals and letdowns everywhere. His Buddhist tendencies seemed to bring little solace, indeed there is something far more wise, and safe in a sense, in the young Johnson being sceptical towards his religious ramblings. She didn’t buy any of it and perhaps deep down neither did Kerouac really, it seemed just another blind alley that brought no real lasting peace. Actions speak louder than words and what more terrible statement than that of self-destruction?

Perhaps the answer is there in On The Road Johnson hints. That stunning paragraph, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” may have cost Neal Cassady his life attempting to live up to it and perhaps cost Keroauc’s his running away from it. Maybe it’s in the irresponsibility of the man, the refusal to face up to the world, the desire to keep running. “If it had been possible to remain in motion forever, never tiring, speeding away from each new encounter while it was still unsullied by the flagging of the first excitement, he might have been happy,” Johnson wonders. Of course he never could be. Life has a gravity, you get tired and so do experiences when repeated. And you can’t keep running. Sooner or later you’ll wear out, slow down and the whole world, with all its accumulated weight, will catch up with you.

Another factor could well be the Faustian bargain of fame. It’s possible had he languished in obscurity Kerouac could have survived, instead with his new found celebrity too much pressure became concentrated upon him. A lonesome character he found it increasingly difficult to bear the weight of expectations and this new generation thirsted for martyrs just as much as it thirsted for heroes. Kerouac the myth would require the sacrifice of Kerouac the man. Johnson attributes his desire to keep moving on the road to a quest for “perhaps redemption.” Evidently he never found it. Instead all he found was the wilderness and memories. It seems the answer to his demise lies in the realisation that On The Road is as much a work of aspiration than actuality, of dreams rather than experience. On The Road was the way Kerouac wanted life to be and not the way it was and that disparity is what ultimately killed him.

I remember Jack once saying he wrote his books so that he’d have something to read in his old age – although of course he never had any and maybe never believed he would.

Following the publication of On The Road the couple’s relationship began to sputter out. Witnessing the dire circumstances of fame first hand she watched him undertake a poetry reading blind drunk, his audience leaving before he’d uttered a word of verse. Already at his wit’s end he begged her to take him away, claiming he wanted to hide away from the world and escape its demands on his soul. And then, on the way to sanctuary, he ran into some musician friends and, stuck in the vicious circle of fame and destitution, they were dragged into the “endlessness of this night…I lay shivering on Jack’s bed wrapped in my coat, watching Christmas lights blink on and off in the windows of the house across the street” while the party continued. Haunted by the prospect that there would be a time they wouldn’t be together, that she would be living “some different life I could not imagine” she finally heartbreakingly admitted, “I loved him, but it didn’t mean a thing to him, really.”

Fame brought more immediate troubles than parasites and sycophants. On one occasion Kerouac was nearly lynched by hipster purists who found out he was, god forbid, making a living from his writing. He had lost his anonymity and it would be costly. Stumbling through Greenwich Village one night with Gregory Corso he was badly beaten, finally being carried to Joyce’s apartment with head injuries. This can be seen as the point of no return, the point where his desire for the hermit life outweighed his attraction to the life of the city, why not give in to his solitude now that fame had only brought expectations and violence. “Lost in wine, Jack’s no longer the leader of this revelling mob but its wild, blind child,” Johnson declared.

Attempting to break through his barriers she visited him at his mother’s residence but he later warned her off, castigating her for upsetting his mother’s routine. Forced away she had to watch his decline from afar. On one occasion he showed up on a TV chat show where he was laughed at due to his incoherence and his claims of “waiting for God to show me his face.” It seemed all the critics, reactionaries and poseurs were now gunning for him and he had distanced himself from the very friends who might protect him and help him through.

After they split up through “too many separations, too many drunken, chaotic nights and always that confusing distance in him that was both paternal and rejecting,” she lost touch, chancing upon him one last time on the streets of New York late one night. From a distance she watched him staggering along arm and arm with Allen, Peter Orlovsky and another woman, “And I glimpsed his face in the red neon…so far away forever now with the snow falling between us and the traffic grinding its way downtown.”

When it finally comes Johnson refers only fleetingly to Kerouac’s death and with great restraint, an indication of the class and refreshing tenderness of this book especially in a time when the word memoir has become synonymous with sensationalist tell-all trash peddled by z-list slebs. Comparing his to that of Jackson Pollock‘s she concludes Kerouac died the wrong death, it was “improper, slightly embarrassing” for him to die in front of the television, a housebound drunk. It didn’t fit with the romantic demise his apostles demanded. Kerouac should have fulfilled their stereotypes and, however trite, died “on the road.” Pollock’s death appears the stuff of myth, he died in “classic American style,” killed in a car crash that somehow seemed to fulfil his painting style – all action, energy, dynamism. In reality his death was horrific: bitterly drunk driving down country roads like a crazed lunatic with his girlfriend and his mistress begging him to slow down before he took the corner too fast. Thrown fifty foot through the air he headbutted a tree ten feet off the ground. One of his passengers was crushed to death the other suffered terrible injuries. Up close his death lost its romantic lustre. Whilst Pollock had been selfish enough to take other people down with him, Kerouac had the decency to merely self-destruct. Pollock hated the world, Kerouac’s hatred was reserved for himself. Despite such misplaced romantics Johnson never resorts to the ‘life fast, die young’ myth, that lie that robs us of our finest and leaves us with only the cowards and misers to grow old with. It’s a testament to Johnson that sensationalism is consistently avoided and it is the gentle, moving, personal moments that are remembered long after reading; Jack’s letter from San Francisco, “It’s the end of the land, babe, it gives you that lonely feeling – I KNOW that I’ll eventually return to NY to live. Mad Jack,” the note after her cat Ti Gris finally escapes, “Well I guess Ti Gris’s on his way to China, where he will become an immortal and ride away on a dragon.”

Most moving of all is the “glorious weekend” travelling north to Cherry Valley where they walked together, “jack-o-lanterns hanging on dried stalks, scarlet-berried bushes, a mistiness around us like a web.” Lying together Kerouac announces, “Well I know we should just stay up here and get married and never go back.”

Feeling the saddest happiness, I said that was what I knew, too.”

“We went back to the city that afternoon, and Jack’s fame.

Sad is much too flippant a word to describe this book. It goes much deeper than that. It’s haunted by a sense of loss, a genuinely haunting sense of tragedy. There’s a melancholy, a fathomless deep-sea melancholy that can only ever come to those who feel real awe and beauty in the world. Johnson is one of those people and, for all its fascinating insights concerning Jack, ultimately this book is a testament to her. Even the graceful, forgiving tenderness of it makes it stand out in an age of tiresome tabloid autobiographies. Johnson’s writing supremely evokes a life heightened by senses of promise and loss, “I loved the slums, my slums, the sweet slums of Bohemia and beatnikdom, where sunflowers and morning glories would bloom on fire escapes in the summer.”

Her open down-to-earth style comes alive in passages of incandescent writing reminiscent of the finest passage of Kerouac’s prose, “And on across the lunar landscape of Coatzacoalcos to Mexico City, empty now of Bill Burroughs and the dead, witty Joan. The feeling that Joan has somehow been abandoned to this place. Allen walks Orizaba Street looking for her ghost.” Then there’s the New York of the time conjured up in fleeting but exhilarating depictions; John Coltrane, Theolonious Monk, Billie Holiday soon to die, the time when the city filled with artists, abstract expressionists and black mountain poets, “the summer restlessness” of the nights, Greenwich Village becoming “a little country of painters” all fuelled by the urge to “break out into forms that were unrestricted and new.”

Minor Characters proves that far from there being one truth or one history there are in fact many. The Beats may have mapped out their experiences in enchanting forms but they are by no means the only characters in this tale. In its true form, through the eyes of all its participants, history is a bewildering cubist painting, all contradictory angles and perspectives. This is its salvation. This book may not be the most extensive, multi-layered history (Ted Morgan’s monumental Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs can claim that) but it’s undoubtedly the most moving account. Johnson’s greatest achievement is managing to resurrect real human beings from ghosts; her doomed friend Elise, that long lost New York of the black and white photographs and of course poor lost Jack. Most importantly she prevents herself being airbrushed out of history because of her sex or reduced to a line in someone else’s chronology, resurrecting herself from the status of a ghost will be the lasting achievement of this beautiful, gently mesmerising book.

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson
268 Pages

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