By Richard Labonte
“Just Kids,” by Patti Smith. Ecco Press, 280 pages, $27 hardcover.
Though the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg wander through the musty Chelsea Hotel hallways – where the juiciest bits are set – of this polished gem of a remembrance, they’re merely bit players, albeit colorful. The real stars, memorialized in their pre-fame days, are then-waiflike memoirist Smith and her late 1960s cohort in cool ambition, Robert Mapplethorpe. She was soon to be a punk goddess merging the lyricism of poetry with the energy of a rock star; he was soon to be a leather-clad badboy with a photographer’s lens trained on both the sacred and the profane. But those lives came later; this is Smith’s elegiac account of their early years, in a bygone Manhattan recalled most recently in Edmund White’s “City Boys,” when being bohemian was more than merely a pose. The “kids” met shortly after 20-year-old Smith moved to Manhattan, sharing hunger, poverty and a bed. Mapplethorpe eventually went his gay way, but their relationship endured until Mapplethorpe’s death and, as this exquisitely tender book makes clear, well beyond his passing.
“The Silver Hearted,” by David McConnell. Alyson Books, 214 pages, $14.95 paper.
Atmosphere is all, and more than enough, in this enigmatically artful, ominously exotic, and incidentally erotic novel. Set in a world like ours – but not quite, the story is narrated by a nameless young man, charged with garnering profit for a mysterious and somewhat menacing cartel by investing a semi-secret cache of possibly illegal silver coins, all while civil war of a colonial sort, in an unnamed tropical nation, swirls around him. Aiding the narrator is attractive 16-year-old Topher, cabin boy for the impossibly obese captain of the ship that ferries the load of silver downriver from a threatened warehouse to the shaky safety of the country’s river-port capital. The captain is drawn to the boy’s sexy sultriness and muscled physique; so, too, is the sexually inhibited narrator. Neither acts on his attraction for the comely lad – a homoerotic tension that nicely subverts the “gay” novel norm, where boys are normally toys rather than, as in McConnnel’s existential adventure story, fully in charge of their own destiny.
“The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith,” by Joan Schenkar. St. Martin’s Press, 704 pages, $35 hardcover.
She was racist, stingy, coarse, drunk, selfish, unreliable and fiercely anti-Semetic: That’s just one fascinating half of this exhaustive exhumation and examination of the cranky, secretive life of lesbian writer (“The Price of Salt”) Highsmith, probably best known for her several suspense novels featuring sexually ambiguous anti-hero Tom Ripley. “Everything human was alien to her,” says Schenkar, who is unsparing in detailing the author’s dark side. But this isn’t by any means a hit job. The biographer’s rambling yet riveting account exalts Highsmith’s prolific writing career (which included an early phase of writing comic book scripts). At the same time, Schenkar traces Highsmith’s troubled adult personality to turbulent early years with investigative compassion; never shies away from tracking her numerous (and often short-lived) women lovers; and ultimately celebrates Highsmith’s triumph of artistic talent over personal shortcomings. Interviews with dozens of former lovers and friends – not all laudatory – and with bruised but nonetheless admiring literary contemporaries, contribute color to a masterful portrait. But insight gleaned from Schenkar’s access to the author’s voluminous diaries and journals gives this brilliant, sad book its critical energy.
“Field Notes of a Lesbian Naturalist,” by Anne MacKay. Bay View Books Orient, 78 pages, $10 paper; and “What the Right Hand Knows,” by Tom Healy. Four Way Books, 84 pages, $15.95 paper.
Fine poetry can encompass deliciously divergent styles and form. From elder MacKay, the tone is sometimes playful, sometimes pained – and always disarmingly personal. The pain: rejection at age 19 – in a poem written at the same age, a delightfully daring inclusion in a mature woman’s collection. The playful: “Edna St. Vincent Millay Goes Into a Gay Bar.” The personal: “Companions on the Road,” eight poetic vignettes rendering loving portraits of dear friends. Sixty-three poems fill this slim book with the gentle enormity of a joyous, harmonious life. From Healy, a poet in midlife, the tone is also sometimes playful, pained or personal – but the subject matter often has a sharp edge and a bruising, beguiling directness: “You’re the type/ who’d murder./ I’m the one/ who eyes/ his own wrists” or “you say it was easier/ to fall for me thinking/ it was likely I’d be/ dead by now.” These poems often challenge harmony and occasionally question joy. But Healy’s first collection – after years of being a poet – shares with Mackay’s a potency of voice, far less gentle but no less enormous.
It did not bother me to work in obscurity. I was hardly more than a student. Yet Robert, though shy, nonverbal and seemingly out of step with those around him, was very ambitious. He held Duchamp and Warhol as models. High art and high society; he aspired to them both. We were a curious mix of Funny Face and Faust. One cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together. We would get lost for hours. His ability to concentrate for long periods infected me, and I learned by his example, working side by side. When we would take a break, I would boil water and make some Nescafe…. Although we spent most of our time together, we weren’t isolated.
-from “Just Kids,” by Patti Smith
British mystery writer Val McDermid, author of six novels featuring Scottish lesbian journalist-sleuth Lindsay Gordon (all available from Bywater Books), has won the U.K.’s prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger award for outstanding achievement in the field of crime writing. More queerly, the Scottish-born author of 27 novels – including six featuring PI Kate Brannigan and six featuring police psychologist Tony Hill – was named the Stonewall Writer of the Year in 2007 by Britain’s leading cultural and political organization, was named a Literary Saint in the hall of fame of the annual Saints & Sinners LGBT literary conference in 2004, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2001 for her mystery “Booked for Murder.” Of the Diamond Dagger honor, McDermid said: “I’m thrilled and proud but also a bit gobsmacked. The Diamond Dagger is the jewel in the crown for any crime writer, and this makes me a member of a pretty stellar club. But I still think of myself as a young Turk, and it’s hard not to see this honor as placing me firmly in the Establishment. I guess I’ll just have to regard it as something to defy as well as to embrace!”