Patti Smith Plumbs Her Dreams in ‘Year of the Monkey’

By Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a funky original, an authentic bohemian whose pretensions to poetry were ratified by her solid instincts for rock ’n’ roll. For Smith, a great artist must be a rebel of romanticism, whether it be the poet Arthur Rimbaud or the rocker Jim Morrison (two exalted figures in her bad-boy Hall of Fame). Her 2010 memoir, the National Book Award-winning “Just Kids,” was a shrewd, absorbing chronicle of Smith as, initially, a disciple and, subsequently, a master of the art of creating a persona that itself becomes an artistic achievement: in Smith’s case, the rich ragamuffin, the superstar street urchin who has realized her wildest dreams.

Dreams dominate Smith’s third and latest memoir, “Year of the Monkey.” Set during 2016, it includes bedside visits she makes to dying friends such as the playwright Sam Shepard and the producer-journalist Sandy Pearlman, and ends with her appalled reaction to the election of Donald Trump — but “Monkey” is primarily about Smith’s quivering inner life during her 70th year. It begins with Smith booking a room in a place she calls “the Dream Motel.” Not long after, she meets a fellow named Ernest, who, as the book proceeds, proves a speaker of sentiments that invariably dovetail with Smith’s musings. Are we really supposed to believe that dream-obsessed Patti just happens to meet an earnest Ernest who says things like, “The thing about dreams … is that equations are solved in an entirely unique way, laundry stiffens in the wind and our dead mothers appear with their backs turned”?

Smith zigzags around the country — from Manhattan to San Francisco, from Venice Beach to Tucson — snapping photos that head up each chapter here. But nearly every time her travelogue gets up a head of steam, the narrative momentum is halted for Smith to describe another one of her damn dreams. “I dreamed of a long train of migrants walking from one end of the earth to the other”: Patti’s dream is Tucker Carlson’s nightmare.

About halfway through the book, life beyond her art-drenched existence intrudes upon Smith’s consciousness in the form of an unnamed but obvious Donald Trump, “compounding lies at such a speed that one could not keep up, or break down.” “The bully bellowed,” she writes of Trump’s 2016 campaign style, informing us that she “had bad feelings about an election in the Year of the Monkey” without explaining whether the bad vibes are due to divinations she received from studying the Chinese zodiac, or just rueful hindsight.

[ “I read all the time, anywhere — on my stoop, in a noisy cafe, at night in my tour bus bunk,” Smith said in her recent By the Book interview. “The external circumstance is not the key, it’s the book itself. I’m like Gumby; I enter the world of a book and temporarily live there, shutting all else out.” ]

In her second memoir, 2015’s “M Train,” Smith chronicled her addiction to coffee and to the many TV detective shows she watches. “M Train,” like many sections of “Year of the Monkey,” was a book about traveling to give speeches, meet with famous writers, and receive honors and praise; both books call to mind the screenwriter William Goldman’s tart line about celebrities: “They live in a world in which no one disagrees with them.”

After “Just Kids,” Smith stopped using quotation marks in her memoirs — everyone is paraphrased, and in “Year of the Monkey,” almost everyone sounds like Patti Smith. At her best, her prose reads like Smith verbally riffing between songs onstage with her guitarist pal Lenny Kaye, burning up nights with rock poetry. But too often, her memory is now clouded by the wisps of dreams she values too much.

Ken Tucker is the pop music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air With Terry Gross.”

By Patti Smith
Illustrated. 171 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

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