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June 4, 2011 12:39 am

Book cover: Missing Men

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The cover of 'Missing Men' by Joyce Johnson

Missing Men, by Joyce Johnson, Viking, 2004, cover by Joe Montgomery

Joyce Johnson met Jack Kerouac in 1957, on a blind date arranged by Allen Ginsberg. So began a two-year relationship that came to define Johnson’s life and which she later described in her memoir Minor Characters.

As that title suggests, Johnson stands on the periphery, writing of herself: “She is not quite part of the convergence, a fact she ignores, sitting in excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall.”

In Missing Men, her second memoir, Johnson documents other parts of her life – her childhood and her mother’s story; and her life after Kerouac, as a woman twice widowed and as an editor and writer searching for her own voice. Hers is a life shaped by male absence: her grandfather’s suicide, the death of her first husband in a motorcycle accident, and her divorce from a second. Ultimately, however, it is Kerouac who is the most notable absence.

Joe Montgomery’s cover describes these absences. Cheap nylon sheets cling to an unmade bed, revealing the trace of a missing body. The title and image play with the word “missing”; together, they suggest an absent lover. Strikingly, the “i” from “missing” has vanished. Johnson, again, is on the periphery.

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“My life has shaped itself around absences, first by happenstance; ultimately, perhaps, by choice,” says Johnson. Absence, she suggests, is not always diminishing. On closer inspection, the missing “i” has not vanished, but has morphed into the sheet’s sinuous crease, which marks a bed that resembles an open book. If her first memoir is about inspiring art, her second is about creating it, and the trace left by a body is also a symbol of female creativity; it is the absence of these men, especially Kerouac, that allows Johnson’s own voice to emerge.

Montgomery’s design was chosen for both hardback and paperback editions – an unusual phenomenon that pays tribute to an apt and arresting jacket.

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