Why have no notable books concerning Nashville's two unforgettable meteorological events of the '90sthe ice storm of 1994 and the tornado of 1996made their way onto publishers' lists? The question arises with the nearly simultaneous havoc earlier this fall caused by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, and by the appearance of a new book called Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast by Philip D. Hearn. While less formidable in its knowledge of water dynamics and far sketchier in its historical and political context than Rising Tide, John M. Barry 's study of the Misssissippi flood of 1927and less horrific, somehow, than Janet Hemingway's recent book on one of the state's worst tornadoesHearn's Hurricane Camille relies on hundreds of pages of interviews with survivors to give a sense of what happens when 200 m.p.h. winds take command of a 26-mile stretch of coast for a couple of hours. I wish, however, that Hearn had included a verbal version of an interview I saw once on a TV documentary: a mini-skirted woman who attributed her survival to the "real strong legs" she had developed during her lifelong career as a cocktail waitress.
♦ While it's perhaps unfortunate that we see no GAP ads reading "Joyce Johnson wore peasant skirts," or "Diane di Prima wore sandals that laced up to her knees," two new books, Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, a collection edited by Nancy M. Grace, and Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years by di Prima, give us a great deal more substance than we've had heretofore about the women associated with Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, et al. These men were far more firmly a part of the American tradition than is usually thought, despite their hitchhiking, infatuation with Zen, and interest in esoteric intoxicants. They were conservatives, prizing action over intellect and having little real use for women, who had much for which to envy their nominal compadres.
Joyce Johnson, one of the stars of Breaking the Rule of Cool, is also the author of a memoir (Minor Characters) and a collection of letters, Door Wide Open. These books have arguably been described as better than any writing by Kerouac: among the various subjects they address, Johnson writes longingly of what the women Beat novelists and poets didn't have but tried heartbreakingly hard to geton their own, with a lover, vicariously, or, usually, a mixture of all three. "I remember walking with you at night through the Brooklyn docks," Johnson writes, "and seeing the white steam rising from the ships against the black sky and how beautiful it was and I'd never seen it beforeimagine!but if I'd walked through it, I wouldn't have seen it either, because I wouldn't have felt safe in what my mother would have categorically called 'a bad neighborhood,' I would have been thinking 'Where's the subway?' and missed everything. But with youI felt as though nothing could touch me and if anything happened, the hell with it. You don't know what narrow lives girls have, how few real adventures there are for them, yes, misadventures, yes, like abortions and little men following them in subways, but seldom anything like seeing ships at night. So that's why [Johnson and her girlfriends] have taken off like this, and that's also part of why I love you."
No mini-review of recent books about and by women Beat writers can exclude another earlier small masterpiece, How I Became Hettie Jones, the cult memoir by Leroi Jones's first wife, who focuses, as a white spouse, on what it was like to be labeled distinctly unhip and then discarded in the years during which Kerouac went on the road and Jones became Amiri Baraka. I don't know that di Prima, Johnson, or Jones ever wore khakis, but who cares about their closets when their studiesoften their kitchens, crawling with babies and sticky with cerealproduced works of such distinction.