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Review: Patti Smith merges reality and imagination in latest memoir

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Year of the Monkey

THE YEAR OF THE MONKEY. By Patti Smith. Knopf. 171 pages. $24.95.

Patti Smith’s “Year of the Monkey” is the third of a series of memoirs that began with her National Book Award winner “Just Kids,” but it’s the first to obliterate distinctions between her dreams and reality. Smith has written a chatty, freewheeling book that topples the status quo. Readers may be challenged.

Objects come alive and speak. Characters escape the pages of books. Anything can happen in Smith’s dreamscape. The hallucinatory plot begins with conversations between Smith and the sign that marks her Santa Cruz motel, the “Dream Inn.” Chance meetings with animate dream characters appear soon afterward: Jesus, from Santiago; Ernest, “maybe Mexican, but maybe Russian, his eyes ... changing like a mood ring, from pure gray to the color of chocolate”; and Muriel, a blonde “pinup,” a “smart cookie with the curves of Jayne Mansfield ... and exceedingly long eyelashes.”

Smith and the rest have read the late Roberto Baloño’s masterwork “2666.” In their conversation at the WOW café on the San Diego pier, they turn to the writer’s dreams and wonder whether they belong to the writer or to his characters. Muriel is moved to say that she is more impressed by Balaño’s “unorthodox placement of space breaks.” Smith points out that Muriel’s strange comment makes her seem more advanced than the rest of them: “I was no longer hungry. Who could bring up a space break and thus end a conversation?”

Smith begins 2016 on the coast of California immediately following her traditional New Year’s Eve shows at San Francisco’s Fillmore. She had planned to spend time with her long-time friend Sandy Pearlman, manager, producer, and rock critic. However, at the beginning of the year, Pearlman suffered a brain hemorrhage, and he lies comatose in a hospital room where Smith and her guitarist, Lenny Kaye, visit him. Pearlman will die six months later.

In the absence of Pearlman, Smith spends her time traveling by herself. She writes of hitching rides with strangers — perhaps real, perhaps dreamed into being. 2016 is a year of loss. In addition to Pearlman, Smith’s great friend Sam Shepard is succumbing to ALS while trying to finish “The One Inside.” Smith travels to him repeatedly, and at the last, after he can only dictate, she spends days lovingly transcribing his work.

These losses of friends accompany the deterioration of the planet, and the presidential election. Ernest (of the mood-ring eyes) reappears to offer his assessment: “He’ll build that damn wall ... and the money will come from the pockets of the poor. Things are changing at a speed we never dreamed. We’ll be talking nuclear war. Pesticides will be a food group. No songbirds, no wildflowers. Nothing but collapsing hives and lines of the rich getting ready to board a ship for a night on the moon.”

Smith is moved by the changes, but as always, she moves on. She remains fundamentally herself, still the 9-year-old bookworm who walked miles to and from the only library available to her in rural New Jersey. When Sandy Pearlman heard Smith’s first poetry performance, he told her she should front a rock 'n' roll band. She laughed and said she had a good job working in a bookstore. At the time, she was seeing Sam Shepard, and passed along what Sandy had said. Shepard told her she “could do anything.” She has — while somehow managing to maintain a voice that is remarkably unaffected and especially American.

In the “Kind of Epilogue” that closes the book, Patti Smith leaves readers with a statement of hope: “This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows.”

Reviewer Allan Holmes is a partner in the law firm of Gibbs and Holmes.

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