By Patti Smith. $25; Knopf; 253 pages
Don't read Patti Smith's new memoir, M Train, expecting to be captured by a plot. In stark contrast to Just Kidsher National Book award-winning tale about coming of artistic age in New York with Robert MapplethorpeM Train is, well ... existential, even comparatively drab. Just Kids is a book of possibility, while M Train finds the heroine plodding along in international fashion. But through it, Smith gives us something rare: the gift of what Patti Smith is like.
Most memoirists address a specific period of their life, and while Smith does have throughlines2012 in NYC right before and after Superstorm Sandy mixed with tranquil Michigan in the 1980s with her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smithany day's occurrence can lead into a singular anecdote of travel or family or love. One might question why Smith chose to ground readers in the relative here and now of her lifethe Cafe 'Ino, her cat-filled bedroom, numerous hotelswhen, surely, there are so many unbelievable stories to tell.
This is the wrong question. She will tell those stories but, instead, think of Smith as a quiet, bookish friend to get to know better. We learn that she likes to have low-key, monkish holidays. We learn she loves TV crime dramas. We learn that she occasionally gets impatient with technology. We learn that she becomes obsessed with authors for months at a time. We learn that she can down 14 cups of coffee a day and still go to bed at night.
And it is all with a self-deprecating beauty shot through with a strong suggestion of loneliness. She's been a widow for nearly 20 years, and it's clear that she would drop her books and solitary trips and artistic expeditions just to be back with Fred, listening to the Tigers games on their broken boat perched under their willow tree. One of the most arresting moments comes as Smith travels to Japan, looking to find the graves of two particular writers and meet some friends. Planning to read on the plane, she gets distracted by the movie Master and Commander. "Midflight, I began to weep," she writes. "Just come back, I was thinking. You've been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes." Not every desire in M Train is put so simply, but so many are knotted with yearning.
Yet Patti Smith, displaced wanderer, finds home by the end, purchasing a tiny bungalow that will survive Sandy's storm surge. It's amusing that she claims not to be much for symbols, as M Train drips with them. Smith constantly sees herself in the parade of television detectives, is haunted by a cowboy in her dreams who gives her vague instructions, keeps looking to see her own hands in her dreams as a sign of accomplishment, and longs for "the clock with no hands" that she and Fred felt kept the time in their ageless relationship.
M Train is to be read chapter by chapter, savored and consulted as a book of wisdom. Each section feels like an ode to to the transitory and succeeds in its own particular way whether it mourns or acknowledges time. A young artist might grow impatient with its dalliances; an older one knows that not every day is full of accomplishment, and that the totality matters more than the moment.