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.

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