In the Chinese zodiac, 2016 was the year of the monkey, a trickster year full of the unhappy and the unexpected for Patti Smith. It starts badly at New Year: ‘Some guy with a greasy ponytail leaned over and puked on my boots.’ Then it gets worse, private tragedies and political shocks drawing Smith into a restive, twilight state: ‘The mischievous monkey, toying with the climate, toying with the coming election, toying with the mind, producing sour sleep or nothing at all.’ She tells us how she ‘skated along the fringe of a dream’ in this — well what exactly is it?
Not fiction, because Smith is telling stories from her life; but hardly non-fiction, because those stories are drawn as often from her unconscious as her waking life, the two bleeding into each other over an unmappable border. It’s clear that we’re in strange territory from the outset, when the author finds herself engaged in a dialogue with the sign of the Dream Motel, where she stays in Santa Cruz. (‘It’s the Dream Inn!’ objects the sign, but Smith reads it her way anyway.) The narrating voice is the voice of Smith’s music, twisting between the incantations of a priestess and laconic poetry.
She walks between two worlds. In 2016, she’s nearly 70 and her friends and peers are dying: she loses the legendary rock producer Sandy Pearlman and the playwright and actor Sam Shepard. Either that, or they’re already dead. Counterculture heroes such as Arthur Lee of the band Love, Jimi Hendrix and Allen Ginsberg haunt the narrative. (Ginsberg is unmarred here by his association with the paedophile organisation Nambla, which may make Smith’s swipes at Trump seem in bad faith, but she’s actually more exercised by the then-president elect’s yellow hair and general vulgarity than his self-confessed sexual malfeasance.)
If you were to categorise this trickster book you could call it a travelogue of the imagination, with the Dream Motel (‘Inn!’) sign as Smith’s spirit guide in her encounters with the lost and the leaving. ‘Across America, one light after another seemed to burn out,’ she writes, and those lights are both the lives of the people she cherishes and the hopes she held for her nation. At the end, she enumerates her griefs (including ‘my dog who was dead in 1957’ and is ‘still dead’), but concludes: ‘Yet I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen.’ There is plenty of wonderful in this small, sly, mystic book.