Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review: Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Writing: A
Passion: A+
Subject matter: B

The Poet, the godmother of punk, has written a memoir of her early years shared with the Artist, Robert Mapplethorpe. Admittedly, these folks were not part of my youth or culture, and I read this book solely because it won the National Book Award amidst rave reviews. The only thing I knew about Patti Smith was that she wrote "Because the Night", and my only knowledge of Robert Mapplethorpe was that he was a counter-culture homosexual who took salacious pictures and died of AIDS.

First of all, this book is beautifully written, and that alone should entice any reader to consider it. She re-counts her working class childhood, which turns into years of struggle in New York City during the 1960's, living with Mapplethorpe as both pursue their art. Mapplethorpe grew up in a strict Catholic household, served as an altar boy, and met Smith when she was literally living in the street. They came of age together in the bawdy art world of the Chelsea Hotel, meeting poets, painters and novelists of renown.

The passion for their art is a major theme throughout the story, along with the hard work and devotion to each other. It's a story of love and friendship; sensitivity that Smith describes as aesthetically as anyone I've read. She evokes compassion for her lover when she realizes that he is homosexual and is going to leave her. But they never really separate and continue their special caring relationship, both looking out for the other, sharing their happiness and eventual tragedy.

Smith captures the devastation of the gay community with poignant prose, but it's not a story only of heartbreak. Both Smith and Mapplethorpe achieve their dreams together, becoming celebrities and fulfilled artists. Their ambition, hard work and mutual love for each other carry the day. The characters are perfectly developed with all the necessary complexity. Highly recommended.

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