What to read when you have a house full of carpenters and decorators? Even when they’re as polite, careful and quiet as they can be, they’re still disruptive. With the good old British rain pelting down outside there’s not much else to do but retreat to the one room whose windows are not being replaced, stick some earplugs in and find something that looks both absorbing and unchallenging. Molly Prentiss’ debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 with its catnip period New York setting seemed just the ticket.
It begins on New Year’s Eve, 1979. Parties are being held all over the city, two of them setting up connections which will play out through the rest of the novel. At one, thrown by a doyenne of the New York art world, James, an art critic for the New York Times who experiences the world in a multitude of trippy sensations and colours, is in attendance with his pregnant wife, Marge, the breadwinner of the two. He catches a glimpse of Raul, an Argentinian artist whose sister we’ve already met on her way to a political meeting in their home country in the novel’s prologue. James is momentarily distracted by Raul as is the party’s hostess who thinks she spots a great talent in the making. Raul takes himself off to a bar where he meets Lucy, a beautiful young woman from small town Idaho, new to the city, persuading her to come back with him to his squat where a much more uproarious party is in full swing. It’s a fateful night for all of them: Marge suffers an accident; Lucy falls head over heels in love; James’ fleeting sight of Raul in striking colours is the last time his synaesthesia will register, robbing him of his celebrated, idiosyncratic way of experiencing art.
Prentiss tells her story from the point of view of her three main protagonists in turn, bringing them closer together as their paths crisscross the New York art world. The novel hinges on fate and coincidence: when James wakes up to find his world drained of colour, he’s devastated but a chance viewing of Raul’s portrait of Lucy reawakens his synapses, leading him to make a terrible mistake later. Lucy’s presence in New York has been predicated on the flimsiest of signs. And everything happens on a Tuesday. It’s the kind of framework which can try my patience but I found myself sufficiently engrossed not to mind. Prentiss tosses a few well-aimed barbs at the art market and its ever-increasing prices – even the most raggle taggle squatters succumb to the lure of money once it’s on offer, no matter how hard they justify their excesses. All this unfolds against a backdrop of 1980s New York City – gritty, grubby and considerably more edgy pre-cleanup. The novel has its flaws – the impressionistic ‘Portrait’ sequences didn’t work for me – but all in all it’s an entertaining, absorbing read with a nice appearance from our old friend redemption at the end.