Just Kids by Patti Smith

20 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

When I heard that Patti Smith’s Just Kids had won the National Book Award, I have to admit I was surprised and even a little skeptical. That quickly evolved to intrigued when one friend after another posted praises of it on Facebook or Twitter or Goodreads or wherever people were talking about books. I didn’t have to read more than a few paragraphs to understand why everyone loves this book so much.

In fact, when I did pick it up to read it, I first thought I would just read a few pages to find out how interested I was and then put it down to come back to later. I never put it down. I devoured it.

This is the story of the friendship between the rocker Patti Smith and the extraordinary and extraordinarily controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. They were “just kids” together in New York in the late 60s and early 70s when they both drifted to the city to try to make their way in the world.

Patti Smith wanted to be a poet. Robert Mapplethorpe wanted to be an artist. Neither of them had a place to live or enough to eat. They joined forces and became partners in nearly every sense as they survived New York and discovered their artistic selves.

This could be a story about a guy who set out to shock the word. It could be a story of a young woman’s heartbreak in loving a man who eventually tells her he is gay. It is neither of those things. Instead it is the tender and compassionate story of true friendship. It is the story of a mutual commitment to art itself and to an attempt to express art in the time and place these two lived.

At times it reads like a Who’s Who of the New York arts scene of the 1960s with everyone from Andy Warhol to Jimi Hendrix making an appearance. It also dwells a great deal on attempts to find the sacred in a world in which traditional orders no longer make sense — or in which those orders are at least not doing the job of helping people cope with war and racial tensions and other inexplicable insanities.

Yet overall it remains a truly warm and lyrical tribute to friendship. It is a wonderful book. Patti Smith deserves every award that comes her way for this.