My gem of a husband bought me this book for Mother’s Day. He walked into our local bookstore and while browsing was offered this book as a suggestion by one of their helpful staff members. It was a staff top pick so he decided to go for it because it had an interesting cover and he’s become invested in helping me with my book review and book cover painting project. I think this is one of my favorite things about our relationship, art. The pursuit of art, the analysis of art, the creation of art, the criticism of art, and of course the shared passion for art.
It helps that Tuesday Nights in 1980 is all about art. Well… kind of.
Art is the premise, but this book is about more than that. The story follows James Bennett, a synesthetic art critic for The New York Times whose unlikely condition enables him to describe art in profound, magical ways, Raul Engales, an exiled Argentinian painter running from his past and the Dirty War that has enveloped his country and Lucy Olliason—a small town beauty who leaves her home of Idaho behind to find her way in the big city.
It’s 1980 in pre-gentrification SOHO where artists are occupying abandoned factory buildings and are struggling to pay for heat, but are still offended by the consumerism of art buyers whom they’re dependent on. Bohemians run the dirty streets and glitzy lights. There’s a buzzing art scene and New York is the manifestation of big promises meeting harsh realities. The city is a character in and of itself, evolving and affecting those around it all within the confines of just a year. “It’s a city of pure poetry, I’m telling you kids.”
I think that’s rare to find an author who can write about a particular group of people such as artists in a way that feels inclusive rather than ostracizing and pretentious. Prentiss offers a view into the art world from several different angles; the writer and collector, those who are drawn to the artists hoping for an escape and self-importance, those who must sacrifice their own dreams so that art can live, as well as the artists themselves. She manages to give us real experiences without insulting the reader. She assumes you belong here, rather than an outsider looking in.
“He loved the flaws; they were invariably the most interesting parts of people’s faces and bodies, the parts that held the straightest lines, the most beautiful shadows. Wounds and deformities and cracks and boils and stomachs: this was the stuff that moved Engales. Usually while he detailed the broken nose or sketched a lumpy body he felt as if he was zeroing in on what it meant to be alive.”
The clashing of these unlikely characters gives the reader several spaces to observe and interact with the human experience. Perhaps best said in this review by Casey Varecka on The Master’s Review:
“Prentiss draws deeply flawed, imperfect, real characters. James’s highest moments of inspiration and expressions of art and love are made all the more real by his avoidance of responsibility. Similarly, Lucy inspires the people around her and loves Engales deeply, but she also hurts him in her quest for continual excitement. Engales, at times, seems the most flawed. He’s manipulative, stubborn, and unforgiving, yet he understands the truth of people in the world, living by the saying of his deceased father, “The scratches are what makes a life.” This line could be Molly Prentiss talking directly to the reader. The scratches on her characters are exactly what give them humanity. The flaws in Prentiss’s characters and in their lives make Tuesday Nights in 1980 a book that grips your heart and doesn’t let go.”
Some of my favorite and the most gripping passages are told from the perspective of James Bennett, whose synesthesia allows him to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the world in ways no one else can. One sense activates another, bringing about a specific taste, smell, or look that is just as real to him as the thing itself. This ability is what allows him to successful write and critique art. “Brice Marden preoccupies me like a shoe that has stepped in gum…” or “The painting tucked under James’ arm, smelled of all the chickens his mother never roasted.” He describes Lucy as “a lime after a shot of strong tequila. She was no sunglasses and no sunscreen when you needed both. She was wet tar where your feet got stuck.”
Prentiss subtly tackles so many issues and controversy that artists wrestle with such as the idea of selling out your work to buyers. She’s also no stranger to irony, titling a large art sale, Selling Out. She offers the perfect commentary on creation versus consumption and allows the reader to make his or her own conclusions. She perfectly captures passion and talent, obsession and mindfulness. She gives us truth in nuanced characters and criticism of the world itself. Everything from large-scale talent to quotes of intimacy scribbled on the inside of matchbooks presented as a project.
“If curiosity would kill him, he would take it.”
Prentiss uses style in a way that I loved. She jumped from perspective to perspective and, in several cases, she gives the reader a look at the same scene through the eyes of several people reveling more truth and insight. She’s sometimes choppy and uses ethereal writing devices and descriptions as if she’s painting a portrait through her writing; mouth, eyes, limbs, stomach, body, nose, hair. I was captured by this style and I think it’s appropriate that a story about art is a bit artistic in and of itself. Her less than linear writing paints a picture and reminds us to see through the eyes of an artist. Known artists such as Chuck Close, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol make small appearances as well as other oddities that remind us we’re in a world pre-social media and cell phones. Her skill for metaphor and observation had me inspired and intrigued. “November is the color of the outside of an eggplant. It smells like the inside of an old woman’s jewelry box. Get outta bed, you’d want to tell November if you saw it. Do something.”
I tore through this book faster than I have any piece of work in a long time. I was impressed and interested, invested and curious. I haven’t liked a book this much in a long and time and I can’t wait to read more from Molly Prentiss.
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