Here's the first great book of the new decade. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a major work, an act of creative discovery, and a surprising new step in its author's riveting career.
Was there every any doubt that Patti Smith could write? She wrote before she sang, actually, publishing rock criticism in Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone and several poetry chapbooks before ever entering a recording studio. But it's rare for a musical artist to master the memoir format, and when I heard that Patti Smith's first book would focus on her early friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, I was worried she'd phone in a Valentine.
Nineteen years ago, a French translator and one-time publishing industry insider began writing a memoir of her time as Jack Kerouac's girlfriend in the mid 1950s. Helen Weaver had been affectionately immortalized by Kerouac (who, of course, wrote about every significant person in his life) as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels. Weaver spent a long time preparing her side of the story, and in the meantime many of Jack Kerouac's other lovers published memoirs: Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, You'll Be Okay by Edie Kerouac-Parker, Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats by Joan Haverty Kerouac.
But The Awakener by Helen Weaver turns out to be worth waiting for. When the book begins, Weaver is a cheerful editorial assistant at Farrar Straus whose parents wanted to spoil her with luxury and good manners, but who instead chose to spoil herself with wild experience, cheap wine and bohemian style. She meets Jack Kerouac about a year before On The Road made him famous, and is immediately knocked out by his good looks. They bond easily but she can't endure his alcoholic inconsideration and eventually kicks him out of her apartment, at which point he hooks up with Joyce Johnson and the book's direct connection to Kerouac ends. But the story goes on: Weaver becomes briefly involved with Lenny Bruce, works with Susan Sontag on a groundbreaking edition of Antonin Artaud's poetry, finds peace as an astrologer, Buddhist and occasional activist. A smart confidence underlies her bemused feminine understatement, and this book is a summation of a deeply thoughtful life.
Some facts that surprised and pleased me as I read this book: that the original Broadway cast recording of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady played a big role in Weaver and Kerouac's romance; that both Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, despite their much-documented excesses, managed to be sensitive and tender in her presence; that as a respected literary translator Weaver made it a game to find a way to place the title of a rock and roll song into every book she produced. The primitive rock and roll scene of the mid-1950s is a touchpoint for Weaver's life, and for her book: she was in her early 20s when Elvis Presley hit the scene, and most of her peers were too sophisticated for the new fad. Weaver, pointedly, was not.
The Awakener includes a funny later scene at Allen Ginsberg's apartment with ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, and an enjoyable account of the 1994 Beat Conference at New York University, where she reunited with many of her former friends and rivals for the last time. There's also much commentary on Buddhism, the Beat religion, which she only comes to accept later in life but seems to understand well.
The Awakener (the title refers indirectly to Kerouac's posthumously published Buddhist text Wake Up) is also valuable for calling attention to the often forgotten novel in which Weaver is fictionalized. The five Jack Kerouac novels that form the great core chronology, in my opinion, are On The Road, Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Big Sur. Desolation Angels may be the most life-affirming of all Kerouac's works, and The Awakener nicely echoes this all-embracing and positive tone.
It's ridiculous, of course, to suggest that fiction is "done". But I do share Yagoda's enthusiasm for the memoir format. A good memoir is a structured argument, a confessional, a reckoning and a coming-to-terms. I can't even begin to list the countless great memoirs that have enriched me, though the first few that randomly leap to my mind are Emmett Grogan's Ringolevio, Katharine Graham's Personal History, Johnny Rotten's No Irish No Blacks No Dogs, Michael Korda's Another Life, Davey Johnson's Bats, Kieth Hernandez's If At First, Bob Dylan's imaginative Chronicles, Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man, Linus Torvalds's Just For Fun, Andre Schiffrin's The Business of Books, Philip Roth's The Facts, Jean-Paul Sartre's The Words, Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road, Meredith Willson's But He Doesn't Know The Territory, Gandhi's Autobiography, Chuck Berry's Autobiography, J. M. Coetzee's Youth, Marlon Brando's Songs My Mother Taught Me, Patty Hearst's Every Secret Thing, Dee Dee Ramone's Poison Heart, Theodore White's In Search of History and the many Watergate memoirs I once greatly enjoyed reading in tandem. Looking back at this weirdly varied list, it occurs to me that I don't need better literature, better inspiration or better life lessons than these types of books can provide.
Of course fiction is not dead, but the memoir is an awesome format. I wish Judith Shulevitz's review of Ben Yagoda's book in this weekend's New York Times Book Review had a little more "oomph" to it, though, and I wish she didn't focus so much on the rather boring question of truth in memoir. This topic has made the news a lot in recent years -- yeah yeah, James Frey, whatever -- and Shulevitz almost makes the question interesting by focusing on Yagoda's point that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was a faked memoir (though this point has already been emphasized by J. M. Coetzee and is therefore rather old news). I wish the article focused more on memoir as literature and personal philosophy, and I wonder if Yagoda's book points out that both Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Henry David Thoreau's Walden are memoirs.
I'm surprised to see that Yagoda considers the words "memoir" and "autobiography" interchangeable. They certainly are not: an autobiography should be an account of an entire life, while a memoir can feature either an entire life or any meaningful segment of one, and can emphasize something other than the life story itself as its central motif (Thoreau's Walden was a memoir, but it was not an autobiography).
Fittingly, this article appears along with several memoir reviews in the current publication. NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus assigns himself to cover Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography and produces a rather thrilling summary that includes the surprising news that Agassi deeply resents being forced into stardom by an overbearing father and that he "loathed the game" his entire life. I watched Agassi play often and never saw this on his face. It's less surprising, but fairly amusing, to learn how badly his marriage to Brooke Shields worked out. Yeah, I guess I'll have another memoir to read. And, having handled this review very well, I hope Sam "Conservativism Is Dead" Tanenhaus will now tackle the just-released memoir that's likely to show up as the #1 bestseller next week, Going Rogue by Sarah Palin. That's a matchup I'd love to see.
Stephen King's piece on Carol Sklenicka's Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life is on the cover of this Book Review, though King focuses too much on the question of Gordon Lish's involvement in Carver's career, a topic already as overplayed as the question of truth in memoir. Just once, I'd like to read an article about Raymond Carver that doesn't talk about Gordon Lish.
Since fiction is not yet actually dead, today's Review also features Brenda Wineapple on a historical novel, Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell, who must have thought there weren't already enough books about the American Civil War.
At least Will Self has a more original concept for his new novel, Liver: A Fictional Organ With a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, which Geoff Nicholson seems to like. This book contains four stories about human livers. I suspect I'll never read it, but I'm pretty amused that it exists.
The fact that Berman pulls off an extravagant performance to reach this point, and that he lushly praises Garcia Marquez's 1975 novel The Autumn of the Patriarch in order to set up his conclusion, only highlight how utterly dishonest this review is. It belongs on the New York Times op-ed page (if anybody still cares about Castro-bashing in 2009), and a real review of Gerald Martin's biography of this important fiction writer belongs on the front page of the NYTBR.
For a critic to communicate to us the essence of a book on its own terms is an act of sharing, and we can intuitively tell when a critic is or isn't able to share. Douglas Wolk's sympathetic description of You'll Never Know, Carol Tyler's graphic novel about her father's traumatic (and long-repressed) experiences as a solder in World War II is a positive example: we absorb the book's style and approach and intent, and by the end of the review it's hard not to want to rush out for a copy. Chelsea Cain is similarly open to Alice Hoffman's novel The Story Sisters, about three starry-eyed Long Island sisters who speak a secret language, though Cain's writing is overly cute ("I could be wrong about that", she tells us after her opening sentence) and leaves me suspecting that I won't like the book as much as she does.
I wasn't aware that Laila Lalami's Secret Son is meant to echo The Great Gatsby with a tale of a poor Moroccan kid thrust into a world of glamorous wealth. Gauitra Bagadur doesn't seem impressed with the final result, though the thoughtful article has the opposite effect on me as Chelsea Cain's -- I suspect I might like this book more than the reviewer does.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is handed the honor of reviewing John Updike's final story collection My Father's Tears. I would have preferred an older and more distinguished choice for this milestone (can't anybody persuade Philip Roth to write a book review?) but Boyle digs in with an open mind -- exactly what Paul Berman fails to do in this NYTBR's cover piece -- and does a fine job of appreciating this significant book.
There's an interesting piece by Polly Morrice on Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir by Karl Taro Greenfield, who grew up as the older brother of an autistic child who got lots of media attention, and has now released his resentments and complex feelings of sibling rivaly in a memoir.
The endpaper by Nicholas Felton is an attractive rendering of book publisher logos as a biological chart (Penguin's penguin, Knopf's corgi, Pocket Books' kangaroo) but I can't understand why the choice was made to only represent books by the five major book conglomerates, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group and Hachette. This ecosystem can hardly thrive without Norton's bird, Soft Skull's ant, Houghton-Mifflin's fish. I wonder why the NYTBR would prefer to be so restrictive? It's not like the big five are buying many ads.
In 1971 a charismatic and brainy gangster named Joey Gallo returned home to New York City after ten years in jail, intending to resume the war for control over the Profaci mafia family that had sent him to jail in the first place. Joey Gallo and his brothers Larry and Kid Blast did not seem to have great instincts as gangsters, and never rose high in the serious business of organized crime. But Joey was a natural-born celebrity, with an uncanny knack for calling attention to himself. Over a decade earlier, he got a proud showing in Robert Kennedy's book about crimefighting, The Enemy Within, and even seemed to get the better of the future Attorney General and Presidential candidate in Kennedy's own book.
The New York newspapers couldn't get enough of the fun-loving Gallo mobsters, who mostly shot and got shot by other mobsters, and in the early 1970s Jimmy Breslin wrote a book about them, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, which got turned into a Mafia movie just before a much better movie called The Godfather was released. It's been completely forgotten today, but the movie version of Breslin's book starred a then-unknown Robert DeNiro as a member of the inept gang.
And Joey Gallo is back again as the subject of a lively biography by Tom Folsom, The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld. This book connects Joey Gallo's wandering intellect to its sources, from the gangster movies that inspired him to the Beatnik scene that enthralled him during his early years running a jukebox and vending machine service from Red Hook, Brooklyn during the late 1950s.
Gallo had particularly great taste in existential philosophy, counting Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Reich and Albert Camus among his favorites. Folsom's book breezes through Gallo's fast life and doesn't try to deconstruct what these writers might have meant to the striving gangster. It reads like a collage, skipping merrily from past to present, connecting lots of dots, from the famous Albert Anastasia barbershop shooting in the 1950s to the prison race riots of the 1960s (Gallo was an early believer in racial harmony) to the cozy Greenwich Village theater scene of the 1970s, where Gallo mingled with the likes of Jerry Orbach, Gay Talese and Neil Simon before he was shot to death in Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy one late evening after enjoying a Don Rickles nightclub performance that would be the last show he'd ever see.
Another friend of Joey Gallo's from the Greenwich Village theater scene was Jacques Levy, director of Oh! Calcutta, who would soon work with Bob Dylan on a great 1975 album called Desire that would include a song called "Joey". It's because of this wonderful song -- one of the best and longest tracks on an album full of mysterious lyrics, jangling acoustic guitars and gypsy violins, that I myself became interested in the legend of Joey Gallo. I can't deny that I'm partial to this book because of my affection for the Bob Dylan song. The book illuminates many of the lyrics for me, from the beginning:
Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the year of who knows when
Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordian
to the end, when:
he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy
This song has taken on a life and legend of its own. It reappeared in a live version on the later album Dylan and the Dead in which Jerry Garcia improvises a beautiful short fill to illustrate the moment of Joey's death. The Dylan song may be bigger than its subject, and this is a perfect example of the artistic serendipity this minor Mafia figure always seemed to create.
That serendipity is the true subject of Tom Folsom's book, which ends with a vision of the new IKEA that looms over present-day Red Hook, the once desolate neighborhood where the brothers ran. It's a nice final touch. My only question, upon finishing The Mad Ones, is whether or not Martin Scorsese will turn it into a movie. I don't see why he wouldn't.
Love As Always, Kurt Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw
The then-clean-shaven novelist was struggling at this moment to break through a memory block and write a book about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Rackstraw became his lover and close friend, and her new memoir chronicles how Vonnegut's life changed when he finished his Dresden book, originally titled Goodbye Blue Monday but eventually called Slaughterhouse-Five, and rocketed to wealth and fame.
Rackstraw remained his sympathetic sometime-lover after his divorce and remarraige, and the stories she tells are refreshingly modest -- she doesn't claim to have been Kurt's greatest muse, though she may have been an important part of his support system.
Fittingly, this is a kind book. Rackstraw remained a writing teacher at Iowa and an editor of the North American Review, and her book offers appealing cameos of Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Geraldo Rivera (who, I'm surprised to learn, briefly married Kurt Vonnegut's daughter), John Irving and even, in a late chapter, Jon Fishman of Phish, a dedicated Vonnegut fan. My only complaint, and a surprising one regarding a memoirist who spent her life writing and editing fiction, is with the prose itself. Many sentences are stiff and clumsy. One characteristic paragraph confusingly begins:
That 'Slapstick' was not a rave, critical success was a disappointment -- and also one that Kurt himself severely awarded only a grade of "D".
This from a lifelong writing teacher? Such stylistic blunders are strange to see, but it doesn't mar the value of this book for anyone wishing to learn more about the gentle soul of Kurt Vonnegut. He earns here a rare honor among celebrity writers: a romantic literary tell-all that only upholds his adoring popular image.
The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl
Like The Dante Club, still my favorite Matthew Pearl book, The Last Dickens is filled with appealing scenes of soon-to-be-legendary early American publishing personalities hard at work. James R. Osgood of Fiends and Osgood is the hero, and the unscrupulous Harper Brothers are the heavies (today, Ticknor and Fields has been lost inside the wayward Houghton-Mifflin firm, while HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch). We also meet Frederick Leypoldt, editor of a new journal called Trade Circular and Publishers' Bulletin, which would eventually become our familiar Publisher's Weekly, along with an array of literary waterfront pirates known as bookaneers.
The historical material is delightful, and I hope Matthew Pearl will keep exploring the early publising scene in future works. But his novelistic formula -- wrap a great author in a fictional mystery and aim for the bestseller list -- may be wearing thin, and I found The Last Dickens less satisfying than his books on Dante or Poe. This may be due to my lack of particular interest in Charles Dickens -- sure, I loved Great Expectations, but Dickens was never in my personal pantheon -- and is surely due to the fact that I've never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I'll always be interested in any book Matthew Pearl writes, but I hope his next novel will move beyond what has now become too limiting a formula for an author of such wide talent and knowledge.
Curses and Sermons by Nic Saunders
Here, the male and female characters are simply called "The Cowboy" and "The Stranger" respectively, but the basic setup remains. Not every experimental play needs to be enhanced with cinematic visuals, but they work well here. The characters dig deep holes in the ground, perhaps as symbolic preludes to making love, and travel through psychedelic filters until they finally, as Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow eventually must, make love. The film ends happily, a satisfying exploration of an enigmatic work.
The photo above is me, reading Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor (appropriately titled Flannery), and my yawning dog. She's a tough critic. Anyway, I've been a fan of Flannery O'Connor since I first read her story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" back when I was in high school, and as I got older and read more of her work, my appreciation of her grew. In fact, on my personal list of Date Book-Talk Gone Wrong is the following snippet:
Him: What kind of books do you like?
Me: A lot of different kinds. I just read a short story by Flannery O'Connor this morning, actually. Do you like Flannery O'Connor?
Him: Oh, that Irish guy? He's really good.
It was a few minutes before 7 pm, and at least fifty people were waiting politely in folded chairs for novelist Joyce Carol Oates at the new Tribeca Barnes and Noble in Manhattan tonight. They should have been sitting at the Starbucks on the other side of the store, because that's where Joyce Carol Oates was, demurely sipping a grande coffee in a black dress with poet Lawrence Joseph, noticed by just a respectful few.
The crowd swelled by the time John Freeman introduced Ms. Oates and Mr. Joseph, who began a free-form conversation about her Journals: 1973-1982, which has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize.
Joseph began by asking about Oates's motivations in keeping a journal all these years, and he offered a good quote from Franz Kafka as a possible explanation for the practice:
If someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.
But Oates charmingly said that Kafka could think that because he had an interesting mind, whereas she wrote mainly about the external world and considered herself transparent, "like a glass of water". She also claimed "I have no personality", drawing some mumbled protests from the affectionate crowd.
In fact, Oates is too smart to believe that she has no personality. She's got a ton of it, and it shows in the elegant way she carries herself: tall and very willowy, evoking a Pre-Raphaelite or Virginia Woolf-esque otherworldiness. She makes the kind of impression that hushes a room, and in fact I really think some film director should hire her the next time a role for an elegant elderly woman comes up, instead of speed-dialing Vanessa Redgrave or Helen Mirren like they always do. If George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote can take up late-career acting, why the hell can't Joyce Carol Oates? She'd probably win an Oscar.
I'm not sure that poet Lawrence Joseph had full control of the interview process, as he asked rather long and abstract questions about the motivations behind journal keeping, after which Joyce Carol Oates would steer him right and say something else charming or poignant. She told a story about Anais Nin's diary-keeping; Nin's father abandoned the family when she was a young girl, but she never knew if he would come back or not, and she kept the diary so that she could show him, when he returned, what he had missed. He never came back. That story, Joyce Carol Oates said, is the best illustration of why a person keeps a diary.
She also cited Henry David Thoreau as an exemplar in the art of journal-keeping, which sounds right to me. I've never managed to keep up with Joyce Carol Oates's prolific output, and in fact the last book of hers I read in full was Black Water in 1993 (I liked it). But maybe I'll pick up another of her novels; does anybody have a title to suggest?
I have a lot of respect for Art Spiegelman, a manic-depressive comic strip artist and writer who holds nothing back from his craft. In the great self-effacing tradition of Robert Crumb, a Spiegelman comic is always "too much information", splattering personal urges and anxieties and weird notions around like a loose garden hose. But the best confessional comix artists have the artistry and wit to make the splatter beautiful. Spiegelman's graphical autobiography promises to be a deeply personal document, and it's off to a great start with the first two sections.
One reason I relate to Art Spiegelman is that he grew up about three and a half blocks from where I live now, in sunny Rego Park, Queens. I know this because Spiegelman drew a map of his street as part of the back cover of his signature work, Maus. Maus is the terribly sad and odd true story of Spiegelman's parents (who could have been role models for George Costanza's parents in Seinfeld, except reality beats fiction). Both were holocaust survivors, but Spiegelman's father adopted an infuriatingly contrary, almost cheerful tone about the experience, which apparently taught him important survival skills (but also made him cruel to women, emotionally dense with his son and generally crazy). Spiegelman's mother, on the other hand, never recovered from the shock of the camps. She committed suicide when Spiegelman was a young man. He had been recently released from a mental hospital when he walked home one day to find police cars outside his house. This was how he found out about his mother's suicide.
Well, I'd like to explain why I think this is true, and why I find Jay-Z's work so exciting from a literary point of view. It's not that I think Jay's the best poet in the hiphop world. That title probably goes to the late Biggie Smalls, who could effortlessly toss out lines like "there's gonna be a lot of slow-singing and flower-bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing", or "Poppa's been smooth since the days of Underoos". What I admire about Jay, on the other hand, is his single-minded dedication to a truth-telling mission. His entire body of work is a mirror gaze -- he has never written about anything but himself.