Last year I read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which takes place in the arts scene in New York in the early ‘70s. Just Kids feels like the novel that Kushner was trying to write, or at least the world she was trying to fit her characters into. The contrast between these two works was really highlighted by how vibrant and desire-filled Smith’s book is- the things that bothered me about The Flamethrowers were the limp, motive-less main character and the pretension of the art world ‘avant-garde’ artists, neither flaw appears in Smith’s book.
Just Kids opens with Smith’s late teen years as she flounders about her small New Jersey hometown in the late 1960s. She describes her unplanned pregnancy in largely uncritical terms- it was a thing that happened, this is how it was dealt with, she put it aside (went away to have the baby, gave it up for adoption)- and then she is ready, no needing to get out of small town life. She moves to New York with the faith that things will work out that I feel like only someone in the 60s could have- nearly penniless and knowing no one in the city, she sleeps on benches until she finds a job and sublet.
All of this ‘getting to New York’ is preamble and the real meat of the story starts when she meets Robert Maplethorpe, at first her lover and always a close friend and artistic partner in crime. Their meet cute story sounds like one every girl has used (to get out of a bad date, she implores Robert, who she hardly knows, to pretend to be her boyfriend). From there the two are swept up in one of those heady early twenties romances, this particular flavor being poverty-racked artistic romance, a la La Boheme. They are both so determined to be artists, although still figuring out what art they will produce (at first they cycle through jewelry making, sculpture and poetry, eventually landing on photography for Maplethorpe and music for Smith). These early sections of the book kept drawing me back to comparisons with Kushner’s novel- her main character Reno wants to be an artist (or wants to be surrounded by artists- hard to tell because she is so limp) whereas these real life artists, even when they weren’t sure of the path that they will express themselves through are throwing everything at the wall- they want this and are willing to sacrifice steady meals and secure housing to accomplish their dreams.
Before reading this I knew who Smith was but I hadn’t heard of Maplethorpe, so that was a nice find. This far out from the 70’s his work feels less avant-garde, but I’m sure at the time his often graphic photos of male sexuality (and gay sexuality) would have been ground-breaking.
Its also heartbreaking to suspect and then confirm that Maplethorpe eventually dies from AIDs related complications- he was so young and had so much to say and all of our treatments for AIDs came too late for him.
In addition to the Maplethorpe discovery and the story of artists finding themselves/ their voice, what I enjoyed most about this book was the world that Smith plunks you down into. This is what Kushner was trying to capture and where hers felt pretentious (and Smith’s occasionally ventures there), on the whole the world Smith describes feels real and vibrant- which I suppose is because it was? I had heard of the Hotel Chelsea as an artist’s residence before reading this, but having Smith describe it made it feel differently- I understood how you could walk down the hall and find inspiration in the room of another artist, or how they could drop in and give you a nugget, or take your work as something they would promote elsewhere. It was a whole artistic microcosm, eating, sleeping and showering under one hotel roof.
I’ve been wanting to read this book since I saw the first reviews of it- including a review here on this site by Sophia (cbr13bingo Rec’d)