Thursday, October 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: M TRAIN by Patti Smith...

Patti Smith and her husband Fred used to fantasize about producing their own midday talk show. It was to be Fred’s show, really. He’d drink beer and talk about aviation and invite B-list actors like Cliff Robertson to be his guests. Patti would arrive for a segment called The Coffee Break, which she hoped would be sponsored by Nescafe. She’d invite the viewers to join her and make their own cups of hot joe, but rather than engage them or take phone calls, she’d simply sit there and talk to Fred. Still, she was happy to know you were out there, enjoying your coffee as she enjoyed hers. This playful sense of ‘Join me, but keep your distance’ permeates M Train,  her elegant, moving new memoir. 

In some ways, M Train is an improvement on her well-received first memoir, Just Kids, though it may not appeal to as many readers. Just Kids was about young love and youthful exuberance, a fairly traditional memoir told in a fairly traditional way. M Train is about a woman nearing 70, a careworn widow with an aura of sadness around her, who can create a tight mosaic of words and thoughts, gliding from one topic to another, from her favorite café to Jean Genet’s grave, from her love of Sylvia Plath, to her love of detective programs, done so smoothly  that you may not even notice that Smith has quietly erected a small masterpiece. Patti Smith is, after decades of flirting with it, finally approaching something like genius. 

The trick, though to call M Train a trick is like calling Saint Joan of the Stockyards a trick, is that she makes you think she’s writing about coffee, or traveling, or visiting cemeteries, but she’s actually doing a kind of elliptical rain dance, summoning nothing less than God’s silence. That’s exactly what she hears when, in a moment of dire loneliness, she calls out to her long dead husband Fred: “You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back.” It’s a heartbreaking instant, one of a dozen or so slipped unexpectedly into the story’s weave. 

She can fool you, though. She’ll leave openings, as if the book is a dialog and not a monolog. When she mentions a certain childhood memory, you’ll find yourself back in your own childhood. I found myself wanting  to show her my old toy box, and woo her with a wind-up tin bird from my pre-school days. She’d sit and watch as I turned the key and set the bird pecking across the floor. She’d marvel at its yellow chest and orange beak.

- It’s beautiful, she’d say.

- It’s yours, I’d say. If you want it.

You have to remind yourself that it’s her story, not yours.  Of course, you’ll eventually understand this, because many of the topics are unique to her, such as her membership in the Continental Drift Club, a small, secret society dedicated to the remembrance of scientist/explorer Alfred Wegener. She has nothing in common with the other members, and was only granted membership after she’d written several letters to the Alfred Wegener Institute, hoping to find a living heir who would grant her permission to photograph Wegener’s boots. See? Her story, not yours. Just when you think she’s just a regular gal feeding her cats, she’s suddenly in Iceland, singing Buddy Holly songs with neurotic chess wizard Bobby Fischer. 

Photographs from Smith’s personal collection punctuate various chapters of the book, and some of them are fascinating: a guardian angel statue from a cemetery in Berlin; the crutches used by Frida Kahlo;  Virginia Woolf’s walking stick; a picture of Patti as a child; pictures of Fred. It’s the writing, though, that stuns. It feels breezy, but is actually dense with thoughts and ideas, and poetry. Nothing is off limits. “I hate being confined,” she writes, “especially when it’s for my own good.” She’s referring to airplane seatbelts, but she may as well be commenting on her galloping intellect. 

Late in the book Smith fears that she wouldn’t make a good detective like her heroes on television. “I’m not the observant type,” she writes. “My eyes seem to roll within.” Yet, that’s not the real reason. The reason she couldn’t be a detective is because she’d rather BE a puzzle than solve one. She’s secretive. Rather than spill her guts, she’ll spill the contents of her suitcase, letting us search for clues, as if we can learn something about her by knowing what she packs for a trip. She can’t be a detective because her nature is less about solving the mystery of others, than to leave traces of herself, like a thief on the run in 1930s Algiers. We covet these morsels. We kid ourselves that we know something about Patti Smith because we know she loves brown toast with olive oil. But we don’t know her. She’s been doing this sort of cerebral fan dance for decades, and she’s mastered it. 

This sense of mystery has been a key to Smith’s writing over the years – she never quite shows her entire hand, preferring to funnel her thoughts through those of Genet and Burroughs and various other saints and sinners. She puts herself in the role of student, rather than master. Case in point: When in Japan she begins thinking of Ryunosuke Akutagawa and his “devoted acolyte” Osama Dazai, two writers who committed suicide. She wants to write something about the elder, but can’t channel him. Instead, not surprisingly, she writes about the disciple, whose “spirit seemed to be everywhere, like a haunted jumping bean.” Her natural affinity for the follower has always given her juice. When other young women were writing about the pains of romance, she was writing paeans to Rimbaud; she was happy, ecstatic even, to play Robin to every great poet’s Batman. But even her humility is a kind of disguise. She’s great and she knows it, and she wants us to know it. That’s why she describes the recovery after Hurricane Sandy as “a truly daunting task, like piecing together the shattered mandolin of Bill Monroe.” You don’t name drop the leader of the Blue Grass Boys unless you’re going for the kill.

M Train is not without imperfections. The book’s recurring motif about an old cowboy who appears in Smith’s dreams, for instance, feels forced. I suppose the cowpoke, who offers Smith cryptic advice, was a kind of stand-in for her old paramour and occasional collaborator Sam Shepard (the book is dedicated “To Sam”). The cowboy feels a bit Shepardish, maybe a conscious effort to break up the Smithian riffs on art and love and survival, something distinctly dusty and American to offset her own far-flung musings. But these off moments are rare, akin to when a skillful boxer throws a sloppy haymaker to amuse the rabble in the cheap seats. The cowboy interludes are quick, and she’s soon back to her beautiful, understated style, like when she tells about a taxi driver caught harboring a man in the trunk of his cab, “curled up like a slug in a rusting conch shell.” 

What’s the book about, you wonder? It’s about all the good stuff that rattles us in the wee wee hours, namely, the magic and loss that good ol’ Lou Reed used to sing about. It’s about aging, and memories, and of course, death. Smith has been hanging around cemeteries and adoring dead authors for so long that she practically wears death like an accessory. But the book isn’t morbid. Death, in M Train, is like our final dance partner, waiting at the side of the gymnasium, grinning shyly, knowing that we will eventually dance a long slow one with him. He’ll pick the time, but with luck, we’ll pick the song. 

But if Smith can write about death without turning morose, there is still a bit of melancholy that covers the book like a layer of gauze. She’s never written much about the death of her husband Fred in 1994, but in M Train we get some glimpses. For my money, Patti and Fred Smith were the real John and Yoko, involved in a true partnership of souls. If for no other reason, M Train is memorable in that it’s the first time Smith has shared some thoughts about her “human angel from Detroit…with eyes the color of water,” her husband then, now, and always. Still, she doesn’t rub our faces in her sorrow over losing him. In such seamless writing,  too many intimate revelations would throw off the delicate balance she’s achieved. What we get is something artful, as if she’s telling us about Patti and Fred by showing us the footprints where they’d once walked.

- Don Stradley

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