This was my second try for “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, her memoir of friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York in the late 1960s and 70s. When I checked it out last fall, it hadn’t yet been named a National Book Award winner, and it hadn’t been included in the American Library Association Notable Books List.
Because I’d gotten at least halfway through the first time, I accomplished the reading quickly this time. (An irritating by-product of reading books off of a list is that sometimes I’m more invested in marking a title off the list than in relaxing and savoring the book itself.)
Patti Smith is a poet, artist, and rock star legend, enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Robert Mapplethorpe became a renowned and groundbreaking photographer (some might add notorious for the shocking sexuality of his work) before his death due to AIDS in 1989.
This true story of their friendship, if a novel, would seem past belief. They first met in New York City. Patti encountered Mapplethorpe when she was looking for one of her friends, someone she hoped might help her out and give her a place to stay. Instead at first she lived on the street, homeless. She ran into him again when she needed a friend badly. They became friends and lovers, people who saw possibilities in each other often unseen by outsiders, friends who nurtured the artist in each other. For a time they lived in the Chelsea Hotel. They rubbed elbows with the likes of Janis Joplin and Diane Arbus. But they had difficult times, with too little money for food or medical treatment. Smith describes those times straightforwardly, not romanticizing them except in the sense of how she and Mapplethorpe pooled what they had, and in the deepest sense, took care of each other. This story is before they knew success, though Mapplethorpe had a sense of his gift, and Patti gradually began to sense her own.
What a great book group book this is–issues of feminism, of artists developing, of following one’s dream, of choosing to be vulnerable, of falling in love.
My own reservations about the book mainly involve writing that sometimes seems off-kilter. In general, Smith writes in a deceptively simple conversational way. However, she descends or ascends stairs, never just goes down or goes up. She often uses the “for” where typical conversation would use “because,” as in, “I was good at tending the sick, bringing one out of fever, for I had learned that from my mother.” (p. 97)
Now that “Just Kids” has won the National Book Award and is probably being read by a wide audience, I wonder whether it needs a foreward to provide context. People of a certain age or with a certain background know of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and are familiar with their remarkable positions in our culture. Some readers may need that context.
Given the attention that this book has received, I don’t know that I’ll much need to recommend it to others. I will keep it in mind for my friends who enjoy memoirs, for people who like to read about artists, and to those who will recognize and revel in the sense of being an outsider.