- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

MISSING MEN: A MEMOIR

By Joyce Johnson

Viking, $24.95, 276 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP GOLD

Joyce Johnson is a national treasure who has never received the recognition she deserves. Now nearly 70, she’s an accomplished novelist, memoirist, and journalist who also enjoyed a distinguished career as an editor for several major publishing houses.

Her prose is elegant, sometimes deceptively simple, sometimes deceptively complex. She’s astute, perceptive, and graciously honest about everyone, including herself.

Which is why her new book, “Missing Men,” might have been better entitled “Missing Woman.” The book is autobiographical, mostly her pre-40 years. Its theme is the men who were no longer in her life, or never had been, or who had been there but never really completely.

Yet this is no man-hating screed. She writes of her former lovers and husbands with respect and affection, albeit also with a certain muted exasperation. Perhaps, had her exasperation been less muted back then, the story would have turned out differently.

Joyce Johnson was born in New York, child of a frustrated opera-singer mother and a mild British emigre. “‘Your father never raised his voice,’ my mother used to say, as if that had been his outstanding quality.” Just about the only time he ever did, she recalls, was when she suggested to her father that they run away together, without her mother.

Young Joyce had reasons to ponder escaping with — and, later, through — a man. Her mother was also her agent, forcing her into a childhood stage career and living for (and through) her successes, transient though they were.

Ms. Johnson finally did escape: to Barnard College, where she fell in with some of the men who would define the Beat generation. She became Jack Kerouac’s lover, an affair she chronicled and dissected brilliantly in her 1983 book, “Minor Characters” (an allusion to the peripheral status of the Beats’ women) and in “Door Wide Open,” a collection of their letters.

After Kerouac came two marriages to struggling artists. The first ended when her husband, James Johnson, was killed in a motorcycle accident; Joyce became a widow at 26. The second, to British emigre artist Peter Pinchbeck, ended in divorce. (Their son, Daniel Pinchbeck, is the author of a well-received first book, “Breaking Open the Head.”) Other men appear very briefly or not at all.

Superficially, the book would seem to be about the inability of these talented, self-obsessed men to commit to her as a person or to her career, to marriage, to family. She adduced the usual reasons-why, from alcohol and infidelity and money worries to chronic professional frustration (the art world was becoming less about art than greed) and wartime trauma. During World War II, Jack Kerouac had been in the merchant marine. Jim Johnson served on a minesweeper; Peter Pinchbeck had endured the blitz of London as a child.

Ultimately, perhaps, men became a burden that Ms. Johnson was no longer willing to carry. Or perhaps she realized that, whatever she was looking for, she wasn’t going to find it in men — or in the men she was likely to meet.

Still, while reading this book, it became hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the problem was hers. Or, more precisely, some of the problem lay in what women were permitted to be back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the ways they were permitted to rebel.

In “Minor Characters” she wrote that, in her youth, “real” freedom meant sexual freedom. Unfortunately, sex is something that we do with each other, and if you’re looking for freedom in bed, you’re at the mercy of your partners.

She rarely mentions, or even hints, that she might also have been looking for freedom, serious adult freedom, in her work. Perhaps her lovers and husbands found her aspirations a threat to their own and withheld their support. Perhaps they simply had nothing to give her that she needed.

In any case, Ms. Johnson comes across as a woman neither submissive enough to make her life with such men nor assertive enough to thump them into line, or at least into a greater degree of consideration. But it is a failure that seems as much a product of the era as of the person.

Ms. Johnson had little use for the ‘60s, which seemed to her in many ways a tawdry degeneration of the Beat era. What she’s experienced since then barely appears in the book. She does, however, conclude that her second husband “died before he could outlive his imagination. Any artist would wish for such an ending. I would like to be as lucky and as brave.”

Yes, of course. But not quite yet. Ms. Johnson is currently planning a new novel and another nonfiction book. Perhaps it’s time to shed the “minor character” persona and become more of the person she should have been and knock out a summa or two.

Philip Gold is author of “Take Back the Right” (Avalon/Carroll & Graf).

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