Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

I finished this book last week and I rarely take this long to write a review, but strangely, I really have no strong feelings about this book one way or the other. It was for my book club, and there were strong feelings there as most people loved it and one hated it, but I felt only mildly pleased. It's weird.

So this memoir is by the rock star Patti Smith, and if you haven't heard of her, like most of our book clubbers, she wrote "Because the Night" (you've probably heard the cover by 10,000 Maniacs) and "Dancing Barefoot" (I first heard this as a cover by U2) and in the end we decided that she's more one of those musicians who's very influential on other musicians - but not wildly popular generally. Anyway, around age 20 after just having given up her illegitimate child for adoption, she hops a bus for New York City with only spare change in her pocket. The friends in Brooklyn she was hoping to stay with aren't actually there, and so she ends up sleeping in doorways and hallways. She lands a job at a bookstore, and keeps running into this skinny but beautiful boy, Robert Mapplethorpe, and after he saves her from a terrible date, they are inseparable. A close couple for many years, they shared everything including their various explorations in art, and while they didn't stay together (obviously - if you know anything at all about Robert Mapplethorpe you probably know he was gay), they were very best friends and stayed incredibly close for not only a long time, but through each of their most formative years, as they were figuring out which respective art forms their artistic expressions would best fit, and as they each found their voices. Robert became a wildly successful and even more controversial artists who used photography, painting, and installations to push the boundaries of art, until he succumbed to AIDS in 1989.

Some book club members were disappointed that while we are told how Patti's life turns out - married with two kids in Detroit - we don't find out how she met her husband or how they made the decisions to leave New York, but I found that all made sense. That was just a footnote. This book was about Patti AND Robert, and when Robert wasn't around anymore, that's the end of the book. This book truly is about their relationship, how they loved and supported each other, how they survived very trying living situations (they were pretty much starving for a few years), how they each developed their own art and influenced each other's as well.

The book flowed smoothly, but it is a little free of action, since she generally doesn't recreate long-ago conversations, just the gist of them. I found it a fast read and fairly compelling, but also a little flat, and she certainly is a name-dropper (funnily, we noted how many people she felt we obviously would be familiar with but that we'd never heard of.) Granted, it's impossible when you are hanging out with Janis Joplin and dating Sam Shepherd, but she did only meet Jimi Hendrix once for 15 minutes and yet she brought it up again and again. Yes, from a career point of view, as aspiring artists, it makes as much sense for them to try to penetrate the art world and meet the top players as it would in any other profession, but it feels a lot more artificial and self-aggrandizing when those people they're trying to meet are Andy Warhol. So this was another debate point- was it natural and normal given that they are aspiring artists? or is it blatant (and annoying) name dropping?

I wished I had loved it more. Or in fact, hated it more. I wished it had evoked stronger feelings in me, but it did not. That said, I certainly seem to be in the minority (it won the National Book Award for nonfiction last year!) so if you're interested, you should give it a try.

I got this book for free from the publisher.

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