In the Night Cafe

Literary naturalism is alive here, as Joanna tells of her attempts to come to terms with meeting, living with, and losing Tom Murphy, the great love of her life. She begins her lyrical reminiscence by describing Tom’s background. Abandoned at birth by his father--also named Tom Murphy--young Tom was neglected by his mother, a woman for many men until she married an alcoholic who sadistically abused his stepson. Before Joanna meets him, Tom has been married for thirteen years, fathered a son and daughter, separated from his family, and become an alcoholic painter. He divorces his wife to marry Joanna but widows her a year later when he is killed on a motorcycle.

Tommy (III) has not seen his father for two years when the fatal accident occurs, and Joanna’s first meeting with the boy develops into this novel’s two most poignant chapters. “Did my daddy ever think of me?” Tommy asks Joanna, just as his father most certainly asked himself about his father. What Tom (II) thought about his son or daughter is much less devastating than what he felt. Alive, Joanna’s husband seeks to obliterate his intense feelings. Joanna idolizes him and derives her identity from his perception of her (he buys her a camera, so she is “a photographer”). She sees to it that Tom’s regrets outlive him.

Joanna’s narrative has integrity, seamless unity, until the eighth section entitled “The Children’s Wing,” the title originally belonging to a short story Johnson published earlier and inserted here. By being yoked together both stories are marred. Nevertheless, much in this short novel is memorably engaging.