In her debut novel, “Tuesday Nights in 1980,” Molly Prentiss sets an almost impertinently high bar for herself. She’s determined to write a love letter in polychrome to a bygone Manhattan; to recreate the squalid exuberance of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s and Keith Haring’s art scene; to explore all the important, hairy themes — love, creativity, losing your innocence in one cruel swoop.
That she mostly pulls it off is impressive, thrilling. That she sometimes sorely tests the elasticity of your patience with her excesses is also part of the deal. Give her a mulligan on them. She knows exactly where she wants her book to go.
After a brief prologue, “Tuesday Nights in 1980” starts at a New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31, 1979, in the home of Winona George, a larger-than-life New York gallerist who says things like, “You’ve got the I-was-born-with-its and the self-taughts and something-somethings” to the artists she loves. It’s a moment when the art scene is changing — “there was a new air of possibility and a new wave of capital coming in” — and the guest list reflects it. The California conceptual artist John Baldessari is there, shivering from the New York cold. So is Keith Haring.
But most important, so are two of the novel’s three main characters: Raul Engales, a handsome young painter who has fled Argentina’s “Dirty War”; and James Bennett, a synesthetic art critic with overlarge ears and undersized social confidence who is nevertheless the toast of downtown, thanks to his impeccable taste. Later that night, Engales will leave the party and meet Lucy — a radiant gal from Ketchum, Idaho, who’s come to New York because she “didn’t want to have only one story” (who does?) — and fall giddily in love.
Eventually, their three lives converge. How they converge is a matter of both chance and fate (Prentiss is big on omens and symbols, scattering them like seeds), but as a practical matter, it’s through James, the book’s tortured soul and most captivating character.
Synesthesia, though theoretically exotic, usually manifests itself in modest ways. (Vladimir Nabokov saw letters in specific colors, for instance.) Not in James’ case. His brain is a nest of crossed wires and snarled circuits, not unlike the hacked (“phreaked”) pay phones of the era, sending out and receiving signals from everywhere, free of charge. (While listening to John Cage, he “tasted, quite distinctly, black pepper, which even made him sneeze.”)
Then, just after that New Year’s Eve party, Marge, James’ wife, has a miscarriage. James’ synesthesia vanishes; his mind becomes a whistling conch shell, just like that. Nothing can summon his powers back. He can no longer write: “He stared at blank pages, and cursed his blank brain.”
It is only when he sees one of Engales’ paintings at an auction that his sensorium is suddenly ablaze again. But Engales is going through his own crisis as he gallops toward fame. Just days before his first solo show, he suffers an accident so astonishing and abrupt it practically leaves skid marks.
New York is its own dynamic character in Prentiss’ hands. It’s a city of towering grime, with graffitied koans on the sidewalks and store windows that advertise “BEST PORN IN TOWN XXX.” Her book falls neatly into the current New York grit nostalgia, captured in Garth Risk Hallberg’s “City on Fire” and HBO’s “Vinyl.”
Most of all, New York is a place where kooks and loners can still afford to move and find redemption. Weaknesses magically become strengths in this place — where else would James’ synesthesia be a marketable quality, and where else would he find a wife who understands him?
It’s where Engales paints “as a way into life,” rather than out of it, as a means of escape from the political hell of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s where Lucy can, for the first time, feel what it’s like to be in love with someone who’ll enlarge her world.
“And surely (his tongue in her ear), most definitely (his sticky body on top of hers), undeniably (his eyes like he loved her), he would change her fate,” she thinks the first night she spends with Engales.
In one sentence, Prentiss captures a sense of intoxication and possibility that six seasons of voice-overs from Sarah Jessica Parker never could.
Yet we also get older. The saddest and wisest passages in “Tuesday Nights in 1980” are about the awful folly of trying to recapture lost happiness. Walking through Greenwich Village, her marriage in shards, Marge mourns the days when she was still in college, doing collages at the kitchen table while James wrote.
That self is gone but there are new selves to be had, and new people to shape our lives. Prentiss concludes her novel on a note that’s both ethereal and brutally realistic. She cauterizes wounds, but they’re still visible and bare. But for her characters — for this promising author — it’s enough.
“Tuesday Nights in 1980” by Molly Prentiss; Scout Press ($26)