Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just Kids: some thoughts on Patti Smith

I was interested in reading Just Kids when I read the earliest review, then, a little more so after the book won the National Book Award in nonfiction. And then even more so, when the title did not appear on the New York Times list of 50 notable nonfiction books of the year, and a tad more, when it did not appear on Time magazine’s list of the ten best works of nonfiction of 2010.

I wanted to know why one group of judges loved it and others ignored it, or seemed to. Of course, award winners are not always the books that are loved, sometimes they are just hated the least, collectively speaking, by a panel of readers. As William Gass once said of the Pulitzer: “ . . .the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second."

First, I should say that I found the book compelling: I read it over a couple days. But what was compelling about it? I wonder if the answer to that says more about me, or about the book? I like the portrait of the time and place. The time is almost mine, just as Smith herself just missed the times of some of the more glamorous names of the era. The place, New York, was never mine, yet I went West the way others of Smith’s moment flocked eastward.

I liked how utterly nonmaterialistic they (she and Robert Mapplethorpe) were. And how that didn’t really matter because they had their eyes on a higher prize. Where I found it most interesting was how little they knew, either of them, what that higher prize might be (more on this later).

Before I go any farther it occurs to me that I should describe what the book is: a memoir of a friendship between Smith and Mapplethorpe in the sixties in New York, before they became the counter-cultural icons (which basically turns out to be merely cultural [no counter]): Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is supposed to be a tribute to that friendship, a kind of fulfillment of a deathbed promise she made to Mapplethorpe, who died young in 1988. As such, it does not attempt to be a complete memoir—much more a coming of age story.

The odd thing about the book as a memoir of a friendship is that there was a long gap in the story between the time both characters found their fame and when Mapplethorpe dies. I have to say that I somewhat understood this: friendships from that intense era of life, the starting out, retain a vitality and disproportion that seems impervious to time and space. I can buy that.

I have seen Smith accused of name-dropping. Well, sort of. But those were the names of the moment. Some were passing encounters, Hendrix, for example, whom she literally passes in a stairwell. Kind of impersonal. I believe it happened and that it was important to her, but a bit odd, a kind of I-was-in-the-elevator-with-Jerry Garcia kind of moment. But then, she’s “just kids.” Just like you and me. Indeed, she didn’t know Jim Morrison, her moment followed his, shortly. She visited his gravesite at Pere Lachaise. hey, me, too. Just kids.

Her description of her affair with Sam Shepherd was a bit implausible—she didn’t know he was Sam Shepherd, for a long time. Uh, okay, but . . . really?

Drugs. Other people take them, but she doesn’t. Then, after a while, maybe, she does. I almost had the feeling that she was thinking of her children as readers when she wrote the book. There are deaths, but there’s also a form of sanitization in the shape of recall she exercises here. But, why not? All of our memories are selective.

I had a couple more qualms, but these aren’t dealbreakers either. One, as a portrait of an artist it’s a bit thin. The first chapter, the dreamy childhood, the books, the longing to be elsewhere: pretty basic. Familiar. It’s little alarming to me that this desire to be an artist prefigures a genre or any real art-making. In this way artistry and celebrity are merged. She has drive and she achieves both–artistry and celebrity–but she achieves them simultaneously. And there’s something that makes me nervous about that–mostly, I suppose, it's that I see a lot of that, and it usually doesn't work out very well. I trust those who want to make art infinitely more than I trust those who want to become artists. I believe in the difference, though it can, as it did for Smith, even out in the end.

She mentions her devotion to Rimbaud. Repeatedly. But, I have to say, and here I sound like an academic (forgive me!) but there’s no real evidence that she has understood Rimbaud, except as kind of cult figure, the kind she hopes, in fact, to become. But wait! This isn’t a damned academic thesis–does she have to account for Rimbaud? Good question. I’m not sure, but I wish she had. Frankly, I wasn’t convinced she necessarily knew anything of Rimbaud. He had become for her a name, in the way Tennyson’s Ulysses becomes to himself. But then, she isn’t trying to prove that, and why should she? The subtitle of the book could be “Sweetness and Dreamtime in the Chelsea.” And that’s fine.

No memoir is complete, particularly when it has no such intention. She defines her own limits here. Let me put it this way: when she writes another book of prose, I’ll read it. But she may well not write another book of prose. Will this one suffice? Yes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Seven Summits

The point of lists is to take them under advisement and then make our own.

Okay, I’m breaking Dr. Schiff’s numero uno rule for a successful blog, by shifting topics, which thus far had been literary. But if the general theme were enlarged only slightly to passions, then, mountaineering is clearly on topic. The traditional Seven Summits list is comprised of the highest points on each of the seven continents. Done many times since first accomplished by Dick Bass, it’s become, well, a tad unimaginative at this point.

I decided to construct my own Seven Summits list, now, as I enter my fortieth year of climbing. Only Kennedy and Alpamayo were givens: top two, hands down. The others had to be culled from hundreds of outings. Hard to do.

The emboldened phrase that follows the entry is the at-a-glance note I made to myself as I put the list together. I’ve enlarged the descriptions to try to articulate why these have somehow become so memorable.

1975 Mt Stuart, North Ridge, North Cascades, Washington, partner John McInerney

An exponential leap forward, an unplanned extra night out, ice cold beer in the stream at the car, a gigantic elk in the middle of the road. Later, Steck & Roper would anoint this one of the Fifty Classic Climbs in North America. (I think I’ve done about ten of them, yet this one, accomplished before their list existed, is the only climb I’ve put on my list).

1977 Mt Kennedy, North Ridge, St Elias Range, partners: Scott Baker, Terry Boley, Jack Lewis, Alan Millar.

Another exponential leap forward (exponentially more exponential than the last entry!) 35 days in the range, in and out on skis, probable first over a pass, great friends, every day a gift. This was the second ascent. The third would wait about 25 years. It’s probably very much due to this trip, so many years ago, that I now live in Alaska.

1980 Tour Ronde, French Alps, with John McInerney

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, starts with an illegal bivvy at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, then a night at the sublime Col de Forche hut. An early morning rappel from the hut to the Brenva Glacier, a long retreat, culminating in an esoteric ascent of the Tour Ronde from an obscure hardly-ever-climbed (if ever) ridge, and a dead man’s walk back up to the Aiguille du Midi. Unbelievable.

1984 Alpamayo, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, with Jim Lucke

High, remote, hard, the north ridge, reached from a high camp at the Quitaraju/Alpamayo col and then a long scary traverse under the famous southwest face. Another remote bivvy miles from nowhere at the base of the ridge. The third north ridge on this list, I now notice.

1990 The Snaz, Tetons, with Tom Huckin

Long, sustained, historic. Stands in for a lot of climbs in the Tetons, Wasatch, and even the Wind Rivers. Death Canyon: bear scat and elk herds. A long day, starting and ending in the dark. Midnight steak and a longneck beer at Tom’s sister’s house. First ascent by Chouinard and Hempel. Just before this climb we learned Aisha was pregnant with Dougal and somehow carrying that knowledge weighted the event.

1999 Hobbit Book, Tuolumne Meadows, with Jim Pinter-Lucke

Great, but also carries a huge symbolic weight as the only Sierra/Yosemite climb on list, (out of dozens and dozens of them, many great). Tuolumne is special, the route is just far enough off the beaten path so that it feels alpine and remote, even though it really isn’t. It’s runout, and just . . . cool.

2007 Cima Grande de Lavaredo, Dolomites, with John McInerney

Just freakin’ cool, (use of the word cool is kind of like giving up; translated: I can't really describe it.) One of the justifiably famous three Towers of the Lavaredo. Not a perfect day weather-wise, but wild and adventurous, in a most amazing setting. I suppose that having been weathered off the Eiger (no, not the north face) made our unplanned excursion to the Dolomites just feel like luck had unexpectedly turned our way.


I remember once, in my naiveté, asking the novelist David Kranes what was the favorite of his books. He laughed, very good-naturedly, and said that the answer to that question is always the last one. By that criteria, my last climb of any stature was in 2009—Italy’s Boot just above the Pika Glacier in the Alaska Range with James Chesher (see photo).

Or maybe the seventh position, the last on the list, should be always left blank, in anticipation of the next grand adventure.