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I am about to embark on the last year of my 30s. (No condolences necessary. I’m okay, really.) Which means I grew up in the 1980s and am one of those reviled as well as revered Generation X-ers, they of the mythical combat boots and flannel shirts, and, earlier, the sky-high “mall bangs” and neon bracelets.
An interesting thing has happened in the last few years. People my age are finally coming of age in the literary world, which means many more novels are being written with characters roughly my age, and with settings in the U.S. during the 1980s.
I may not have been terribly fond of living through that decade, but I do love reading these great books with teenaged characters living through the same time. It’s not just the obligatory brand-name nostalgia (I remember when New Coke came out! And I wore Adidas high-tops, too!) and cultural and/or political memories (Ronald Reagan telling Gorbachev to tear down that wall! Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire!). If one aspect of reading good fiction is that it makes you feel as if you’re reading about yourself, as if you understand the characters in a real and personal way, then the ‘80s settings of these novels only makes this more so for me.
I was completely taken by the teenaged characters in Eric Puchner’s Model Home , for example, even though they were in southern California in 1986 and ’87 while I was in Oklahoma and Florida during the same time. The circumstances of the novel were not at all similar to my own, and yet I felt completely at home (no pun intended) in this flawed family and a world of Walkmans, not iPods.
Palladio by Jonathan Dee hit me in a similar manner. The first section follows a 17-year-old girl in 1988 (my age exactly in that year), and is nearly pitch-perfect in the telling. (The next section is set at an advertising agency in the late 90s – remarkably, I was an advertising copywriter at exactly the same time, and it makes me wonder if Dee somehow got hold of my personal journals.)
I was a white girl growing up in a largely African-American community, so two other novels that not only combine the 1980s setting but also explore issues of race and identity completely sounded something deep inside of me.
First, Colson Whitehead’s lovely Sag Harbor – two brothers, ages 14 and 15, spend the summer of 1985 at the mainly African-American beach community of Sag Harbor trying to figure out who they are. I wasn’t a young black man in 1985, but I had some of the same thoughts and experiences that they did. (Who can ever forget the horrible first job you had as a teenager?)
And finally, I am still thinking about a devastatingly beautiful first novel that I read a few months ago, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow. When the novel begins, it is 1983 and the 12-year-old girl (my age exactly at the time) is orphaned and trying to negotiate a whole new world in which she is not simply Rachel but a “light-skinned-ed” girl who must decide which family – her Danish mother’s or her black father’s – she should identify with.
Don’t get me wrong. I still watch the VH1 series “I Love the ‘80s” when I’m flipping around the cable, and I’m a guilty listener of the new “Generation X” radio station, but my preferred 1980s nostalgia can be found in books.