Picks and Pans Review: Minor Characters

updated 02/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Joyce Johnson

The time is at hand when there are more books being published about Jack Kerouac than there are books by Kerouac. But this "memoir of a young woman of the 1950s in the Beat orbit," as it is described on the jacket, is unique. When the author, now a Dial Press editor in New York, was a 13-year-old, she took her guitar and, fleeing her parents' safe West Side apartment, started making secret trips to Greenwich Village, where she discovered the pre-Beatnik bohemian life. Later a friend at Barnard College, Elise Cowen, introduced her to Allen Ginsberg, and Johnson was with Kerouac the night the review of On the Road appeared in the New York Times. She shared the champagne and the heady excitement. Kerouac, of course, drifted on. Elise, wrecked by drugs, killed herself. Johnson married, and her young husband died in a motorcycle accident. Some survivors of literary groups (the Bloomsbury crowd, the Paris exiles) write memoirs that reflect an awful self-importance, as if just having touched Virginia Woolf or Hemingway gives them a precious insight. The joy of Minor Characters is in its modesty, its splendid details and the clarity of Johnson's vision. The Beat boys were unwilling—or unable—to surrender their childishness, and she was left with a "permanent sense of impermanence." While New York City and the 1950s were probably never this romantic or beautiful, Minor Characters is a loving, tender and moving testament, a book to savor. (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95)

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