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Patti Smith’s new memoir is a dreamy recollection of a terrible year

The Year of the Monkey is about 2016, and the intertwining of personal and national grief. 

Patti Smith at the Beach Goth Festival in Santa Ana, California, in October 2016.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

The Year of the Monkey, the third memoir by singer, artist, writer, and New York counterculture icon Patti Smith starts in San Francisco, at the Fillmore at midnight, with a stranger barfing on her boots. “Happy New Year,” Smith says to them, to kick off 2016.

Her longtime friend, the beloved rock producer Sandy Pearlman, is nearby on life support. She spends the book’s opening pages waiting out the end of his life, coasting through grief at a surprisingly-not-fictional motel by the ocean called the Dream Inn, and heading into an almost-definitely-fictional mystery: The beach, she says, is covered in thousands of empty candy wrappers, all of them a little bit odd (wrong spellings, weird colors), and nobody will tell her why. She drifts from diner to diner, occasionally overhearing what sounds like a clue. One day, the candy wrappers are on fire, creating a beautiful line of “toxic bonfires” full of “artificial autumn leaves.”

“What was needed was a bit of geometric thinking to lay it all out,” she tells herself, as if to kick off something cinematic, like a montage in a dusty reference library.

From there, Smith takes us through her life in the year of 2016 from start to finish. We follow her, as we always do, on a series of misadventures that she retells with enviable calm. She hitchhikes through the desert and gets left for dead. She meets weirdos and mystics in diners up and down the coast, then takes off for Kentucky to help the playwright Sam Shepard finish his final project, a novel called Spy of the First Person, which is about an old man wasting away. (Shepard died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in July 2017, and Smith eulogized him in the New Yorker.)

Smith’s decades-long friendship with Shepard — along with their tumultuous love affair in the 1970s — is a part of her mythology, one of the many connections she’s made by chance in some bar in Chelsea and that came to define the trajectory of her career. But it’s not often that she’s spoken of it in such personal and frank terms as she does in this book, setting down an image of one of the country’s greatest playwrights while he struggles to use his hands. She makes no effort to play up or explain her devastation, which is obvious: “He looked more like Samuel Beckett than ever, and I still harbored the hope that I would not be destined to grow old without him,” she confesses, before moving quickly forward.

This is Smith’s modus operandi. She unfurls a long dreamscape of a scene: the blue light of a country house at night, the horses, the rocking chairs. Then she punches you in the gut with the emotional point — even the people you can’t live without are, in fact, people you might outlive — and pulls you into another dream.

In plainer places, Smith grounds The Year of the Monkey in the physical by running a very charming “but first, coffee” bit through it. The pursuit of coffee or the consumption of coffee comes up about once every 10 pages, and she pays special attention to establishments where the coffee is so good that it seems its makers are “in touch with God.”

Food was also a central focus of her 2015 memoir M Train — which dwells beachside in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — as a device to tamp down some of Smith’s dreamier and more meandering trains of thought. (The city is disintegrating, but she can still get a bowl of soup, and here’s the soup.) In addition to granting some levity to her isolation, food serves a similar purpose in this book. Smith’s physical obsession with coffee drags her out of the unsolvable candy wrapper mystery and into a Venice Beach restaurant she’d rather not be in, ordering kale and yams even though she wants steak and eggs.

“The thing about dreams,” Smith recalls some random man explaining to her in a restaurant, “is that equations are solved in an entirely unique way, laundry stiffens in the wind, and our dead mothers appear with their backs turned.” Then she has coffee with cinnamon toast. On April Fool’s Day, she alludes to the presidential race, bringing up “the candidate” in the middle of a wandering prose poem about Alice in Wonderland, dwelling on the Mad Hatter and the end of time, conceding that her logic is full of holes. Then she explains how humidity has ruined her last can of Nescafé — coffee snatched away again, like Wile E. Coyote denied a bird dinner.

All three of Smith’s memoirs make it feel more possible to live a rich and moral life

Smith’s first memoir, Just Kids, which begins more or less with her arrival in New York City in the late 1960s and focuses on the years she spent living and collaborating with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, won the National Book Award in 2010. When I first read it, I appreciated Smith’s skill with detail and mood, but resented her experience of the city: To me, it was another story about a New York I didn’t get to participate in. The one where rockstars roamed freely and starving artists could still afford studio space in Manhattan. The one with CBGB.

But the problem with getting mad at Smith for having lived a life so much richer than the average person’s is that she’s also so gifted at sharing it. When she describes the best plate of huevos rancheros she’s ever had, for example, she tells a glittery, mythic story about nearly drowning in Acapulco in 1972, which also involves a ring of red hawks that may or may not have been about to kill her. (She was saved by a local chef, who proceeded to serve her the aforementioned eggs.) Someone does ask her if she’s making the story up and she tells them, emphatically, no, she didn’t even embellish.

Imagine a life you don’t have to embellish! Even reading about one makes the world shimmer with possibility, briefly, the way it seems to have done for Smith on cue. In a flashback, she remembers Pearlman telling her she should front a rock band, which she found far-fetched and “extreme” at the time. Then she remembers relaying the suggestion to Shepard, who looked her in the eye and said she could do anything. “We were all young then, and that was the general idea,” she writes. “That we could do anything.”

But this book isn’t about being young, and it’s not about possibility. It’s about one woman’s 2016. It’s about getting older and seeing your loved ones die long before you — some of age, but more of disease and bad luck and negligence at the hands of an unfeeling country. Patti Smith is not a nostalgic narrator in the way we typically use the word; she’s much too smart to wish for the literal past. She comes off more like an artist whose life’s work was dreaming of a bolder and more interesting world, confronted now with the reality that many of the people around her did not want that world, and that they seem to have won out. To her credit, she doesn’t try to untangle why.

The Year of the Monkey, while full of riddles and fantasies and characters who appear once and never again, or twice in a way that seems impossible, makes some strange sense by the time it’s done. Grief on a colossal, national scale has a way of making the most personal, quotidian sufferings feel small and unimportant. At the same time, it makes those typical human tragedies appear suddenly of a piece with the world around them, and part of the same chain of events — as though the election of Donald Trump really did thrust us into an alternate universe in which everything ripples with the nonsense of nightmare, and all of our heroes are dead.

Smith starts the book believing in some dark magic, ends it paraphrasing the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” which is perhaps more strongly associated with Joan Didion’s famous essay about the crumbling of California utopianism than it is its original subject matter, the prophesied return of Christ. It’s clear she is worried sick over whether events are connected, and if so, how. But on Trump himself, Smith says very little. “The bully bellowed,” she writes of election night.

By contrast, she writes beautifully of her friends, who have left her — as she expresses it in the epilogue — holding the bag.

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