Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is a fascinating and beautiful journey into the Bohemian world of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Told in the first person, the novel centers on Smith’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Having only known Smith as a 1970s poet and rock musician, I was surprised to learn that she is now writing books. However, my initial skepticism toward her writing ability was unfounded, as her narrative is eloquently and honestly told. The memoir was straightforward yet well-paced and very hard to put down. It starts at the end—a short, two-page forward brings the reader to the time of Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS-related pneumonia—and then Smith abruptly brings the reader back to her childhood, her family, and her first memories, reflecting a yearning for life that clashes with the opening scene of death.
Readers follow Smith as she develops a love for art and for poet Arthur Rimbaud, experiences a painful teenage pregnancy, and eventually moves from New Jersey to New York. Once in the city, she sleeps on park benches and doorstops looking for jobs. Before long, she meets Mapplethorpe through work, and after another chance meeting in a park, the two become inseparable. They move in together, penniless and dedicated to creating art. The couple chooses to move from place to place because of the dangerous neighborhoods, and the excitement really starts when they move into a room in the famous Chelsea Hotel. Surrounded by famous artists, musicians, beatniks, and Bohemians, Smith and Mapplethorpe are drawn into a world in which they finally belong. Mapplethorpe insists they haunt Andy Warhol’s favorite restaurant, as he idolizes the artist, and Smith spends ages in the hotel lobby, meeting the likes of Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, and Jimi Hendrix. The best part of this period of their life together is that readers are able to see both Mapplethorpe and Smith change from “just kids” into the artists who eventually became famous: Smith as a poet who puts her prose to music, and Mapplethorpe as photographer who concentrates on the dark and erotic.
One interesting aspect of the novel is that Smith does not bother to describe her feelings toward Mapplethorpe, and instead lets the reader feel them through action and memory. Showing instead of telling is often a more effective way of writing, but I find it interesting that there were no signs of heartbreak when the relationship had to change from romantic to platonic, as Mapplethorpe eventually accepted that he was gay.
One of the best parts of the construction of the novel was the way Smith inserted photographs at random. You turn the page and suddenly there is a striking picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe together, one with arms around the other and smiling into the camera. It is unnerving in a way that brings the reader into the story, a reminder that this is a memoir as well as a memory of someone who no longer lives. It is more effective than inserting all the photographs together in a section in the middle of the book. By putting them in at random, it makes the book more than just the written word, which is powerful.
Unlike many works of nonfiction, Just Kids makes itself accessible to people who are not already familiar with Smith or Mapplethorpe. The story is inspiring, exciting, and sad, and it adds new meaning to their work. After reading the book, I played Smith’s album “Easter,” which I hadn’t listened to in years. I found it better than ever now that I know the person behind the voice. To all audiences who are itching for a bit of art in their life, I strongly recommend this book.