Novel: Just Kids by Patti Smith | Goodreads
Release Date: November 2, 2010
“Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.”
– Johnny Depp
It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation. Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969, the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous—the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years.
Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.
Just Kids was my “challenge” book, which I read because a friend adored it, although I knew it wasn’t always my style. It’s a lot rougher around the edges than I am, as a person and a reader. Like Patti and Rob, I think romantically and idealistically, but unlike them, I’m much too practical for many of their antics. They were all over the place.
The most compelling aspect of the narrative was and is the nature of their relationship. That gray area is more accurate than most — details the wobbly path they chart through both friendship and romance (at times), strengthened by years of familiarity. They were kindred souls throughout it all.
Just Kids is a deeply detailed portrait of the bizarre but intimate relationship between Robert and Patti. The complexity of their sometimes-friendship-sometimes-else was portrayed through the sprawling texture of their lives in the 60s and 70s in New York City. While often too specific (fond of name-dropping), the pretension was softened by the earnestness of their exchanges.
Because all of Just Kids was written chronologically, with stream-of-consciousness flair, it was difficult to keep my attention focused on the book. As one of my friends put it, “[her] opinion changed based on the page number.” There were lines I loved, but they were buried in excessive detail. Although I recognize and value Patti and Robert’s experiences, it got a little repetitive — times when it lulled and that frankly didn’t feel like enough.
I liked their spiritual appreciation for art — as something that could sustain them despite not having food or a roof over their heads. They completely disregarded themselves for it, and while I couldn’t relate, there was something admirable about their relentless pursuit of the word “artist.” Even when it felt like they weren’t actually making art, just doing lots of drugs and sifting through threadbare jackets. (As for the drugs, one of the interesting parts of the book was how surprisingly straight-laced Patti was in comparison to the rest of the scene.)
It’s gritty, and has non-gritty bits too. It has the usual, stereotypical, lovely Hail Mary of a move to New York, and then wandering aimlessly — nervous, a little humiliated at her failures, curious about what the rest of her life would hold. It has a lot of behind-the-scenes looks that will likely captivate those who care about the names or about the day-to-day.
As a whole, I’m glad I read it and I appreciated a lot of it, but I don’t think it functioned well as a book for those who expect more structure, or more going on. It didn’t have much of a message: it focused almost to a fault on the extraneous details of the era. Things they collected and people they met. It makes a great portrait though, of the city life, of the bohemians. I could see a lot of my friends appreciating the momentary romance of it, and the glimpses of a drawn-out creative process.