Patti Smith’s debut novel, the autobiographical Just Kids, is already a true American classic, although it’s less than a decade old. The book viscerally and magically transports readers to a time when young, penniless, passionate artists could move to America’s biggest, most exciting and possibility filled cities and “make it” on the basis of nothing but talent, uncompromising work ethic, and unstoppable dreams.
Year of the Monkey, released a few weeks ago, shifts the setting to 2016, with Smith traveling around America alone and with friends, ranging from the late writer Sam Shepard to some eccentric young folks she meets after wandering into a pier café in San Diego. Though the setting is many years and locations, apart from Just Kids, Smith’s infectious, open, and inspired writing style is maintained. Passages about doing nothing more than holing up in crummy beachside California motels retain the welcoming, raw magic of not only Just Kids but Smith’s hugely influential songwriting and performing.
In Year of the Monkey, Smith engages with memories of her dreams as powerfully and descriptively as her waking memories, and both come alive and leave lasting impressions. In Just Kids, the story itself is exciting from the first pages – a young New Jersey girl from a religious family leaving an enclosed life behind to meet her heroes, including Jimi Hendrix, in Manhattan and desperately embark on a legendary career as a punk-rock poet and trailblazing rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman. Year of the Monkey, on the other hand, is the tale of a complex, soulful and endlessly creative woman in her late 60s wandering and wondering, coming to terms with the existential, emotional reality of losing longtime friends to illness and losing the ability to make sense of America as the presidency of Donald Trump loomed.
What’s perhaps most exceptional about Smith, though, is her inability to lose faith in the spirit of those friends, or the spirit and heart of America. Smith is the kind of person who can find inspiration in, and even conversation with, a motel sign, or a beloved pair of boots, but isn’t a new-agey, pseudo- “-mindful” flake. Her curiosity around nature, people, and art of all kinds is juxtaposed with never-ending scholarship in all the above.
At one point in Year of the Monkey, Smith hitches a random ride through Southern California with a strange couple who demand only that Smith is silent, no matter what. But the music they play in their car is so good and diverse, so deeply symbolic of refined taste and splendid intentions that Smith can’t help but blurt out “What a great playlist,” which gets her kicked out of the car at the next gas station, forced to find another ride.
Instead of arguing or venting angrily, she calls out after the car as it speeds away, “That was great!”
“I stood calling out an inventory of great songs I had savored in silence,” Smith writes.
It’s incredibly refreshing, and inspirational, to be reassured that 50 years after Smith and the multimedia artist Robert Mapplethorpe “made it” in New York, becoming international symbols of artistic righteousness after struggling just to find food and shelter in Manhattan, as immortalized in Just Kids, Smith is still that endlessly curious, creative–and fierce – young soul.
Trying to make sense of believing in art and humanity in one of the darkest, most frightening and pessimistic eras in American history, Smith provides a window into collective, and intensely personal, ambition and imagination in Year of the Monkey. She’s a dreamer, but she also takes her work, and the gift of being alive, just as seriously as she takes her Rimbaud-Esque poetic visions.
At the end, which is perhaps where her next book will begin, Smith concludes, “The trouble with dreaming is that we eventually wake up.”