Book-reading is sort of like dating — or, in my case, tricking — and it was eleven adventures ago when last I blogged about what I’ve been picking up. Like tricks, I often find my books on-line. I troll blogs and reviews, follow a lot of authors and publishing folk on social media, and — as with men — I am easily sucked in by a clever precis, a catchy tagline, or a promise of what I’ll find if only I open myself to the experience: “Clean/DDF/athletic/amazing oral skills/8 inches cut” and “Genius/Brilliant debut/Compelling/Marvelous and Moving!” are markedly similar in their likelihood to be at least partially hyperbolic. But, such is my affirming and positive nature that as with CraigsList and Grindr assurances, rather than live in bitter-world where I assume everyone is lying, instead, I consider book blurbs to be exercises in aspiration. Yes, with men and literature, I am ever hopeful.
So, as with my recent adventures in tricking, I greeted each of the last eleven books with a sense of hope, heart open, ready to be delighted and enchanted, to bask in the “ahhh, yes” feeling, pulled in, engaged, absorbed, and caressed to a finish which — if not happy, then at least fulfilling.
Alas, again, as with men, those eleven books — while none of them were awful — didn’t really give me the joy-explosion for which I was waiting.
Then came Molly Prentiss’s Tuesday Nights in 1980 and huzzah, I’m in love again.
Were I blurbing, I would say, “Molly Prentiss debut novel, Tuesday Nights in 1980, is a must read. Gorgeous. Assured. Evocative. Moving. Skilled. Original. Satisfying.” I would link you to the Simon & Schuster page for the book but I find one of the sentences in the New York Times review they quote to be unnecessarily mean to a celebrity, so, I refuse. But if you click the link below, you can watch the author talk about the book:
The novel focuses on a year in the life of James Bennett, art critic for the New York Times; Raul Engales, artist and Argentinian exile; and Lucy Olliason, Idaho exile aspiring to be . . . more. The fourth main character in the book is Manhattan itself; its art scene, its energy, its cornucopia of opportunity, possibility, and experience are the canvas on which the ups, downs, gains, and losses — oh the losses — of James, Raul, and Lucy are painted.
Much has been made of Ms. Prentiss fascinating exploration of James’s synesthesia. (Note: so skilled, honest, and insightful is Ms. Prentiss’s writing that one feels on a first name basis with her characters. I felt invested in each of them, even when I disliked what they did, how they behaved, still, like friends, I cared, I worried, I wanted them to be happy. Maybe not near me — but, happy.) His neural pathways are constructed that his senses interact crossways: a smell may cause him to see a color; a color might create for him the sound of a symphony; a sound may cause him to taste chocolate cake; any sensory input might produce actual, tactile, audible (to him) phenomena and experience outside the “norm”for most of the rest of the world. It is remarkable the way Ms. Prentiss limns James’s way of seeing, the glorious flights of fancy, which elide into her descriptions of the city as a body, painting its portrait (as it were) in sensations and words and tastes and brilliant brush-strokes of unexpected prose. For James, his synesthesia is a gift, and without spoiling things for you, he must live a life worthy of the gift, or lose it, and if he does lose it — his gift of uniqueness — who is he?
That question (in my reading, anyway) was the foundation of this marvelous novel. And it wasn’t just James with his synesthesia, but also Raul with his artistic gifts, and Lucy with her naiveté, her beauty, and her ability to open herself to possibility, all of them struggling to be worthy of the best of who they were in a world they were simultaneously creating and trying to survive.
In other words: Life.
Ms. Prentiss has managed to take a particular time and milieu — the Manhattan art scene of 1980 — and make it universal. You needn’t be interested in art or a devotee of Haring, Warhol, Basquiat, et al, to find the profoundly transformative journeys of these characters riveting, you need only be alive and struggling to find the best use of your gifts in the world, to live a life you feel worthy of the possibilities you’ve been given, to wake each day and wonder about the path you’re on, the people you love — or try to love — and the things you’ve done and haven’t done, accomplished and failed at, in order to experience all the senses of this marvelous, insightful, heart and soul-provoking novel.
For me, after a long eleven-book-long dry spell,the fascinating story of self-discovery, self-doubt, redemption and life-altering decisions of this thrilling debut (sounds like a blurb, doesn’t it?) tasted like clear blue sky after weeks of rain, sounded like Italian espresso after a long morning of struggling with words, unable to put together a coherent sentence, felt like the warm caress of Barbara Cook singing a Sondheim ballad, read like the relief of finally hooking up with a fellow who delivered the promised athletic body and eight skilled inches — that last bit being not the least bit synesthetic but ties in with the start of this thing. LOOK PEOPLE, I’m not the brilliant debut novelist — if you want gorgeous prose that makes sense and moves you, quick, get yourself a copy of Molly Prentiss’s Tuesday Nights in 1980 right the hell now.
Love and Light, kids. And thanks Ms. Prentiss for giving me faith in debut novels again.
P.S. On re-reading this, I realize that I forgot to mention one other really important feature of the work — the secondary characters are as well-developed and intriguing as the main characters. James’s wife Marge, Raul’s artist friend Arlene, gallery owner Winona, Lucy’s roommate Jamie, and others, Arlene, Lupa, on and on, beautifully done.