Among a certain set of music lovers and misfits, Patti Smith has been a star for more than four decades, a patron saint to punk-rock kids and aspiring poets who scrawl her song lyrics in book margins and tape moody black-and-white photos of her to their bedroom mirrors. But for many people she was a vague public figure at best—stacked in old record bins, name-checked by Madonna and Johnny Depp—until 2010’s Just Kids, the left-field literary phenomenon that spent weeks on best-seller lists and went on to win a National Book Award. A mesmerizing portal into a vanished New York demimonde of beatniks, freaks, and downtown art stars, Kids was also a love story at its heart, a tender tribute to Smith’s best friend and creative soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe, the famed photographer felled by AIDS at 42.
Another monumental loss runs through M Train: her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, only three years older than Mapplethorpe when he died. Here the writing style is much more spare and elliptical—part dream diary, part travelogue, and shot through with sobering reflections on age and impermanence. The book’s brief chapters are anchored mostly in the near-present, and their twilit tone feels far removed from Kids’ giddy sense of discovery. Still, Smith’s passion for certain things is undiminished: good books, strong coffee, a poem or a painting or a beautiful piece of music she can get lost in. A lover of talismans and lifelong student of liberal arts, she’ll travel thousands of miles just to take a Polaroid of Frida Kahlo’s crutches in Mexico City or lay a matchbox full of pebbles at Jean Genet’s Moroccan grave. But she’s not a culture snob; TV detectives enthrall her nearly as much as French philosophers and depressive Russian novelists. (Fair warning: If you don’t know how season 3 of The Killing ends, skip page 238.)
Some fans of Just Kids will inevitably be disappointed by M Train’s pensive wanderings and muted palette. Patient ones, though, will find a different kind of beauty: bittersweet and battered by time and circumstance, but still somehow full of grace. B+
OPENING LINES “It’s not so easy writing about nothing. That’s what the cowpoke was saying as I entered the frame of a dream.”