THE MISCHIEF-MAKING black poet, Ted Joans, Oonce coined the term "bagel babies" for those pubescent New York Jewish girls of the early '50s who defied parental wrath by taking the subway to sinister Greenwich Village. Joyce Johnson was a 14-year-old initiate. It was in the Village that Johnson, then Joyce Glassman, got a head start in the forbidden fruits department, one that utimately led her into the arms of Jack Kerouac when she was 21 and he 34. The affair was tender, uncertain, full of tears and forgivenexx, and when it ended a year and a half later it put the seal on a decade that remains the most sheerly pivotal for most American survivors over 40.
Apart from the involvement with "beautiful" Kerouac and the very inner cabinet of the Beat Generation writers, Johnson's memoir of the period is twofold: a purging of her early years, as if to come to grips with sad, sharp family memories only hinted at in her precocious novel, Come and Join the Dance (1962); and a gentle rebuke to history for permitting the "voices of the men" to silence her young self and the other squelched handmaidens to the Beat adventurers. Hence the wry title, Minor Characters.
But any anger that this even-tempered New York writer and book editor may once have felt towards the swashbuckling pirates of the bohemian '50s has long since evaporated. More to the point, it has been distilled into knowing, unsentimental compassion for Joyce Johnson's neglected sisters -- the ex-wives of authors William Burroughs, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, even Jack Kerouac, as well as former best friend Elise Cowen, who hurled herself to no avail at Allen Ginsberg. Then finally hurled herself forever from the window of her parents' Washington Heights apartment in 1962.
Yet just as this is not in any sense an accusatory book, so is it not a lurid one. Even though the Beats certainly suckled at the wild and outrageous, and Johnson felt she had a "seat at the table in the exact center of the universe," her writing is so normal and unpretentious that it defuses all cornball melodramatics. And to use a disgracefully old-fashioned word, it is also so naturally "ladylike" that it gives dignity to a bunch of New York cameo scenes that might otherwise have been lost in a haze of cheap wine, drugs and stained sheets. But all this is no particular surprise to readers of Johnson's two previous novels, especially the more recent Bad Connections (1978), which has a bleaker climate than her newest offering but shares the same brave self-sufficiency and poise.
Although all her work has come from an autobiographical core, this memoir tells us more nakedly than before how an unsoapboxy female rebel in our time is made by family repression. Joyce Glassman was the only child of a madly proper Jewish couple who moved into New York City from the suburbs when she was 10 and settled in the vicinity of Columbia University. Her father was "the most perfect gentleman" her mother had ever seen, a mild English immigrant who took a stopgap job with a tobacco company and stayed there for 35 years until he wasted and died. The marriage was prim, passionless and sculpted a disappointed woman out of the author's culture-hungrey mother, who then placed all her bashed hopes on her pretty daughter.
Ambitious mothers are a stereotype in our mythology, but Johnson's was original: she wanted nothing less than that her daughter become a great female composer. For years Johnson was forced to write musical scores she didn't believe in, dress in a certain way, achieve outstanding grades in school, even enter Barnard College before she was 16 -- a prodicy created in large part by throttled hungers that preceded her arrival on the planet. There was only one way to cope and that was by leading a double life. Just as she covered her tracks when she made those early expeditions to Greenwich Village, so was she soon using the camouflage of college to make rebellious sexual and intellectual choices (dropping music like a hot potato) which finally shattered her parents when she was found out.
Johnson left hoome and never did graduate from Barnard, but it was there that she met her dark, neurotic angel, Elise Cowen, who introduced her to the cluster of older dropouts at nearby Columbia University. It was through the tormented Elise that she met Allen Ginsberg and his pony-tailed lover Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, guru William Burroughs and the ex-footballer Jack Kerouac -- the nucleus of what was to become the Beat Generation.
She was swept off her feet by this anarchistic counterpoint to her family's post-Victorian defensiveness and for the next few years made the required trip of the Beat '50s: "speed," promiscuity, a sleazy abortion, a pad on the Lower East Side, all the stigmata of liberation that finally destroyed Elise Cowen. As Kris Kristofferson was to say later in the '60s, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
But Joyce Johnson had learned some tough reality-lessons during all those years when she was her mother's pawn, and could never be a beatnik debutante for long. Even when she was at the height of her new giddiness in the late '50s she was working on her first novel far into the night, then holding down jobs in lterary agencies and publishing houses by day. She became the steady anchor for the wandering, melancholy Jack Kerouac, whom she met in 1957 just before On the Road was published, and even though she gave him her heart and bed and got mystic lectures in return ("Nothing ever happened except God") it is to her credit that he lives with such boyish good nature in her memory.
As a matter of fact, her entire recall of those early Beat Generation days coupled with her own rebellion at home has the fresh throb of what Theodore Dreiser called Dawn in his own memoir written half a century earlier. It smells of passionate springtime. Now 47 and a mother herself, Johnson can't help but be reflective about the bit parts assigned to "minor characters" like women during those headlong years, but no Village Voice battle-cries ever get in the way of her homage. This refusal to be petty is probably the reason why some factual nonchalance sails over the waves of her memory, all of it bound to be noted by squinty-eyed Beat scholars: such as calling the famous Lower East Side hangout the "B&H Deli" instead of the "B&H Dairy," misnaming downtown Third Avenue as the "Bowery," and assigning jazzman David Amram a "Brooklyn" background when he was in truth raised on an alfalfa farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania.
You can't win 'em all. Nor does Joyce Johnson need to after handing over to us the safe-deposit box that contains the lost, precious scrolls of the New York '50s.