Imagine New York City and America as a whole in 1980. The World Trade Center still stood tall. Times Square hadn’t been de-pornified by Rudolph Guiliani. A B-list actor named Ronald Reagan was just about to be elected President and nobody wanted their MTV. John Lennon was unwittingly living his final days. And we were just starting to hear about a “gay cancer” later to be known as AIDS.
Well, with the novel ’80 by Whit Anderson you don’t have to imagine life at the helm of the 1980s. You can live it (or if you’re old enough—relive it) through the diary of one Mary Louise Weeks, a denizen of Manhattan, fledgling photographer and part-time party girl.
Long before people wrote blogs or revealed their darkest thoughts and secrets via social media, people kept diaries. Mary Louise, or ML as she is referred to, is one such diarist. Like many people who keep a diary, ML chronicles her day to day experiences living in Soho, taking on photography assignments that don’t always line up with her artistic vision, and navigating the heady world of love, sex and relationships. She relates both the exciting and the mundane of her life, including frustrating photo gigs, fun times at night clubs and the heartbreak of being left by her boyfriend pondering if she’ll ever find true love.
But ML looks beyond her own private realm, and also uses her diary to chronicle the world around her. She admits her dismay over Reagan’s election at a time when America had grown weary of the Carter years and was looking forward to “Morning in America.” She’s disgusted by the creeping element of commerce to the world of art. And like so many Beatles’ fans, she is shocked and saddened when John Lennon is gunned down in the final month of 1980.
ML also describes artists, musicians and celebrities that she comes into contact with that the reader can easily recognize through Johnston’s highly descriptive prose. ML mentions noticing simplistic yet striking subway graffiti that is clearly the work of the late Keith Haring. She also mentions a beyond wild performance of a punk band, which includes destroying a car. Anyone with an inkling of musical knowledge will recognize this punk bad as the Plasmatics, featuring the controversial and frenzied front woman Wendy O Williams. At turns, ML drops the names of John Belushi and Yoko Ono. This might come across as celebrity worshiping, but I suppose living in New York City one is going to come across famous folks. ML is hardly bragging; she’s just remarking on her life. Hey, I’ve been known to mention that I met my city’s mayor and I got a very sweet kiss from a lead singer of an Irish rock band (no, not that one).
To some people, ML just might be another Big Apple hipster artist, but I think readers will be touched by ML’s questioning, wistfulness, ambition and struggles as a young woman and as a creative person. This is all part of the human condition no matter what place on the map you call home. Despite being living in fly over country and being a pubescent during ML’s life in 1980, I found myself relating to ‘80’s twenty-something diarist. I have no doubt the feelings, emotions, ideas and thoughts ML had in 1980 will be just as genuine in 2080.
ML’s diary abruptly ends just as 1980 is turning to 1981. Undoubtedly, some readers will find this maddening, and will want to know what became of ML. However, I kind of liked this ending. It made me ponder ML’s life. Would she remain true to her artistic vision and maybe become a famous photographer? Or would she sell out during the “greed is good” decade and become a trader on Wall Street? Maybe she’s hang up her camera, move out to the suburbs and become a mini-driving soccer mom? Who knows? I have no idea what ML would become but it is fun to use one’s imagination and try to figure out ML’s future.
What I liked about ’80 is how it encapsulates a brief time in history through the eyes of one particular person. I also liked a having a glimpse of a New York City that I never experienced, but always wanted to. And what is truly interesting about ’80 is how Johnston, a man, can write so thoughtfully about a woman. The last book I read that did just this was Blake Nelson’s Girl.
So far, ’80 appears to be the only book Johnston has written. I hope it’s not too long before he publishes another one. According to his literary agent, he is working on another novel I’ve Come for Your Blondes. Good. I’ll definitely read it.