For folks who were there, the New City York of 1980 was the best of times and the worst of times. The city was a cauldron of energy, creativity and wonderful freakishness. It was the city of Basquiat and Keith Haring’s hit-and-run works of art—and even a place where rents were cheap if you lived in Greenwich Village or Alphabet City. AIDS had not yet ravaged the city like a daikaiju from outer space. It was a place where a girl from Ketchum, Idaho, or an orphan from Argentina could come and dream big, make it big and yes, fail big.
Molly Prentiss’ Tuesday Nights in 1980 follows several linked characters during the year in question. There’s Lucy, the innocent girl from Ketchum and her lover, Engales, the ambitious painter from Argentina, who has escaped that country’s encroaching fascism as well as a quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister. James is an art critic noted for incorporating his synesthesia into his reviews. To him art, people and things are jumbles of vibrant sensations and colors. He is drawn to Lucy because she’s as fluorescent yellow as a squash blossom. Engales, who he meets after the artist suffers a disfiguring accident, fascinates him with his blueness. James’ wife, Marge, is red.
Because James knows all these people with varying degrees of intense intimacy, everything in the book will get very, very complicated. How can it not? It was 1980.
The book is such an accomplished and surefooted work that it’s amazing to learn that it’s a debut. Prentiss’ descriptions of New York and its fractious art scene will make those who were there almost nostalgic, and her deep empathy for her characters, messed up as some of them are, is moving. She pulls off the difficult feat of making dialogue sound like conversations overheard in the next room. Tuesday Nights in 1980 is a discerning, passionate and humane work.