Patti Smith – Just Kids (Book Review)

Just Kids cover

Patti Smith - Just Kids

An autobiographical tale intended to be about another person, Just Kids is an unusual sort of dual memoir. It’s really about the author, Patti Smith, but told through a lens where the main thing that mattered in her life was Robert Mapplethorpe. The atmosphere of the book is defined by their relationship to each other, and the years they are apart slip by as if irrelevant. Really, showing how one’s own life was defined by another person is a much more sincere and moving tribute than simply writing a book about them.

It’s a beautiful story on its own, of course, with an inside view of New York City’s arts scene to add to the human interest, but the book’s hook comes from who these two people were: In their own ways, each became one of the defining artists of the 20th century, but the bulk of the story takes place before this. The reader’s knowledge of their success contrasts with the simple, desperate lives the two were actually living, just as foreknowledge of tragedy (the book opens on the scene of Mapplethorpe’s death) gives weight to every scene.

Smith is a poet, but not an author. Accordingly, her prose is lyrical and captivating, but the story sometimes feels frustratingly incomplete. Every person she pays tribute to throughout book, and there are many, come alive as beautiful and meaningful friends, even when prosaic descriptions would have made them seem strange or pathetic. But at times, it becomes apparent that many pieces of her life have been glossed over without that attention. For example, when she first visits CBGB, she casually mentions that she’d hung out nearby at Hunter S. Thompson’s house many times. She is often painfully honest and self-revealing, which makes the coyness about some stretches of life, relationships, and sex seem strange. The lasting impression is a pointillistic vision of life defined through vibrant events, but often with holes between them. However, that is probably a more honest portrayal of memory than more complete memoirs provide, and it certainly feels as if Smith’s choices are focusing on the elements that are truly important to her.

I read this book over the course of a month, and finished it another month ago, but nearly every scene is easily recalled to memory and comes alive again when I page through the book. That’s a rare thing, and a sign that Smith’s approach was the right one for her.

Mapplethorpe’s evolving art style and eventual rise to fame is told excellently, with Smith describing both it and its impact on her. As a very close observer, she provides one of the best possible introductions to and celebrations of his work. It touches them both in the same way as the many people who played roles in their lives. Smith’s own artistic development seems less deep, though. Whether it’s so second-nature to her that she doesn’t think to describe it, or she still can’t believe in her transition to a rock star, the mentions of this seem more matter-of-fact than personal. While the reader never forgets Mapplethorpe’s obsession with art, sometimes it’s surprising to be reminded that Smith was doing her own work at this time. It would probably take another person with a close, but still outside, view to do for her career what she does for Mapplethorpe’s. Otherwise, they are both described thoroughly as people.

Just Kids is a rare thing, largely in how successfully it conveys the author’s vision and mood. That this personal vision also provides a sensitive window into public figures’ lives is a bonus. The celebrity memoir and personal story complement each other without getting in the way. Whether the reader is a fan of one, both, or neither of these artists, the book is educational and affecting.

Grade: A-


Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: