Last week I mentioned the present popularity, for better or worse, of young adult literature with crowds of all ages. Another genre that’s become the thing to read these days is memoir. Consequently, it’s also become the thing to write, so there’s a very real risk you’ll encounter some utter crap as you stand in front of those “New Arrivals” tables at the front of Barnes & Noble, trying to decide what to get next.
Well have no fear, faithful reader! Grete is here to tell you what to do with your life. And I say, you need look no further than Patti Smith’s 2010 National Book Award winner, Just Kids. It really is as good as everyone says.
If you’ve wholly embraced the current creative non-fiction trend, then you’ll know that a good number of the memoirs being published these days are written by journalists or former journalists. This is fine, as it means that in the majority of cases these people have practice with composition and can do it fairly well. It also means, however, that what you get is a very particular way of seeing the world, and writing about it, that extends across the genre.
Just Kids is different. Patti Smith is an artist of varied persuasion. Poetry, singing (and songwriting), painting, and drawing are just a few of the media she employs. As such, the style of Just Kids is unusual, unique, bright, and musical–the world seen through the eyes of a creator, not a reporter. Smith writes at the end of the first chapter, for example:
It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life. It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.
At its most basic level, Just Kids follows the story of Smith’s young life as it revolved around her friend and lover Robert Mapplethorpe. After beginning with a brief nod to her early upbringing (and Robert’s, to the extent that she knows it) and a short explanation of how she ended up broke and alone in New York City, Smith goes on to recount how she and Robert met one desperate night in 1967 near Washington Square station–”as vagabonds will sometimes find one another,” she writes.
Smith’s narration is humble and unassuming, yet as her tale progresses the reader realizes just how special her and Robert’s experience was; and how important the scene in which they found themselves. Grace Slick, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and Janis Joplin are just a few of the characters who appear in Smith’s memories; unremarkably, though, like quirky strangers. The reality was that Patti and Robert were quite literally starving artists–a reality I think Smith succeeds in de-romanticizing–and there was no way for them to perceive, especially at so young an age, precisely what they had wriggled their way into.
Apart from the fantastic, poetic prose and the fun pop culture facts, my favorite thing about Just Kids is how it made me feel: nostalgic for a past I’d never lived. The pages of the book swell with Smith’s adoration for Robert. They are heavy with the knowledge of how he forever changed her life–how he fed her, lead her, inspired her, drove her, and ultimately set her free as they learned to claim their individual places in the dark society they helped guide each other through. There is an honesty and an intimacy in Just Kids that can be hard to find–ironically, I think–in memoirs these days. It’s not a funny, light-hearted revisitation of a past that looks innocent and goofy in retrospect; though, there are some funny parts. What it is, ultimately, is a eulogy, a love song, a thanksgiving. It’s a beautiful read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
If you’re in the market for more memoir–I mean, who can really get enough?–then I’d also recommend taking a gander at these lovely ladies, er, books:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (I remember it took me a while to get into this one, but it was worth it.)
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean (One of my favorite books of all time. Simply a must.)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. (Really any Sedaris will do; I kind of chose this one at random.)
Marley and Me by John Grogan (Be prepared to cry, though. I’m talking heaving sobs.)