Novelist and Kerouac-memoirist Johnson (Bad Connections; Minor Characters) hits her stride with this bittersweet novel of love and death on the Lower East Side. In New York's Hell's Kitchen of 1925, a charming young rogue named Tom Murphy fathers a boy and takes off, giving the child nothing but his name. Little Tommy grows up ignored and mistreated by his cruel mother and drunken stepfather. Aside from a few fragmentary memories of his natural father, the child has nothing to buffer him from a sense of future disaster. Skipping years ahead, we spot a grown-up Tommy at a party in downtown Manhattan. He is now a handsome, hard-drinking Abstract Expressionist painter, and the answer to rootless young Joanna's prayers (Joanna's narration sets a dreamy, grief-stricken tone for the entire novel). Tommy and Joanna begin to housekeep in an artist's loft, marrying when Tommy's divorce comes through (he abandoned a spoiled wife and another little Tommy in Florida). But as Tommy comes to be a Kerouacian figure--too pure, too beat to survive as the gentle, bohemian 50's fade into the turbulent 60's--his brand of art is suddenly old hat, and he spends more and more time drinking in the Cedar Bar. Finally, just as he ominously predicted, he dies--drunkenly ramming his motorcycle into a truck. Joanna moves to Paris, briefly marries, and mothers a child. After a few years, she returns to New York, where she is haunted by bittersweet memories. In what is more a chronological collection of short stories than a novel, Johnson offers us a necklace: Some chapters strain, mere connective string, but they strain for chapters that stand out like antique pearls. Of the latter, ""The Children's Wing,"" which was the co-winner of the O. Henry Award for best short story of 1987, is the most polished, haunting, and evocative.