Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Just Kids is advertised primarily as the story of Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and that it is. But it is also the story of Smith's ascension through art—the years she spent choosing between buying a cheap meal and an old imprint, between being an artist or a writer, between being Mapplethorpe's lover and his best friend. She tells us about the conversations that generate ideas among artists and friends, about coincidences that set a life on its path, about the clothes she wore and the mis-impressions she couldn't correct, about a kind of love that is bigger than any definition the world might want to latch onto it. She yields an entire era to us, and though her writing is all sinew, strength, and honesty, she does not once betray her friends, does not invite us to imagine privacies that should remain beyond the veil.
This is, then, a revelation of a book, an exemplar. I could quote from every line. I'll simply give you the beginning:
When I was very young, my mother took me for walks in Humboldt Park, along the edge of the Prairie River. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of an old boathouse, a circular band shell, an arched stone bridge. The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage.
You don't assess writing like that. You honor it. The National Book Award Nonfiction Panel got this one just right.