JUST KIDS by Patti Smith

Book Quote:

“Dear Robert,
Often as I lie awake I wonder if you are also lying awake. Are you in pain or feeling alone? You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist…”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (JAN 3, 2011)

There are a handful of writers who haunt me. That is, as I’m reading their books they come to me in my dreams, usually with sharp elbows and voices clamoring for attention. Cormac McCarthy effects me this way. So does, not surprisingly perhaps, Friedrich Nietzsche. No writers whisper to me in my dreams. It was the second night of reading Just Kids that I discovered here too a voice so strong and compelling so as to ring in my ears after the book is closed, the eyes shut and the brain turned off. Like caffeine, if consumed after a certain late hour, you know you’re in for a ride. Patti Smith is an original. She is a poet with the heart of a rock star and the drive of an Olympic athlete. She comes at you hard and fast and won’t let go, even in a dream state. She is that mesmerizingly good.

I was unsure what to expect with Just Kids. It won the National Book Award, so I knew it was deemed good, but I didn’t know why. Nor did I know much about the lives it depicted, principally the lives of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. I knew of them, but little else. As a photographer I was certainly familiar with Mapplethorpe’s work, much of it brutal and stark, but the life behind the work was a simple ghost. Of Patti, my slate was almost clean.

It didn’t matter. I didn’t have to know anything. I was in deep from the first paragraph and who what and where were abstract concepts. “I was asleep when he died,” begins the foreword. “I had called the hospital to say one more good night, but he had gone under, beneath layers of morphine. I held the receiver and listened to his labored breathing through the phone, knowing I would never hear him again.”

What follows is the story of two young kids, Patti and Robert, both born in 1946, who discover each other, their art and the world, amongst the bohemians of New York. Each is a springboard-muse to the other. They are lovers, adventurers, soul mates, room mates and, perhaps most importantly, friends in the truest sense of the word. “We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad.” She continues: “Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing principles, light and dark.”

Patti’s world ranged from poetry to visual art to music–a blending of disciplines. Here she traces her effort to find her voice, struggling to release the artist within. As a bookstore clerk, she finds herself in a bar sitting among Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Jimi Hendrix. She writes that she found an “inexplicable sense of kinship with these people.” Her’s is a story of innocence, of trying on a voice like an article of clothing, to see how it fits. In her slight modesty, she lacks the ambition that Mapplethorpe wears like a battlefield suit of armor. It is 1969 and the world is roiling with ambition, with change and excitement.

Mapplethorpe is rendered here with a quiet, yet graceful, painfulness–his need for fame and personal release is so powerful. His artist soul is struggling for expression, his homoerotic self is breaking its bonds. Heartbreakingly, we hear of Patti alone in their Chelsea hotel while Mapplethorpe walks the streets fueled by the excitement of random male encounters. “I begged him not to go,” she writes, “but he was determined to try. My tears did not stop him, so I sat and watched him dress for the night ahead. I imagined him standing on a corner, flushed with excitement, offering himself to a stranger, to make money for us.” Artistically, she watches him break into Warhol’s inner circle, an individual Patti viewed with suspicion. The grace with which she renders the transitions in their relationship, of which there are many, is evidence to the unquestioning bond between them. Later, she would say of Mapplethorpe’s images, “His pursuits were too hard core for me and he often did work that shocked me….I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality.”

Just Kids has a tone of the elegiac about it. It stops short of heightened fame, of notoriety, of sadness. Instead it sings of a time of innocence when the world was being created anew and artists lead in the struggle. It was a time when a couple of young kids from parts unknown could–and did–create themselves from whole cloth and step into the world with nothing of claim except a nascent vision. Only later would it come to be understood that such stark expression was a tipping balance between life and death. But we are spared that here. This is a hymn to the hopeful brilliance of youth.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 267 readers
PUBLISHER: Ecco; Reprint edition (November 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: The Fiction 2010 National Book Award Winner:The Lord of Misrule by Jaime Gordon



January 3, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Coming-of-Age, National Book Award Winner, New York City, Non-fiction, y Award Winning Author

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