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From the very beginning, nothing is simple about '85. The language is raw (make no mistake; this is a work for mature readers), and collaborators Danny Simmons and Floyd Hughes don't shy away from depicting New York street life. It's an in-your-face kind of work. Moreover, it's a fast-moving story that challenges you to keep up. But if you do, what you find inside is worth the effort.

Crow Shade, a junkie and a thief, is our guide to this tour of the Manhattan art scene during the Reagan years. As the book opens, Crow has just stolen some art from his friend Danny's apartment. Danny is a talented painter, and Crow has the idea of selling his works on the street to get some money for rent and drugs. He passes the paintings off as his own and gets his first taste of the bizarre bohemia of the art world.

A friend introduces Crow to the beautiful Candy, who agrees to represent his artwork. This is the time of rampant street art, mixed in with a pre-Giuliani cleaning of the city, and Simmons and Hughes have a lot of fun making sure they recreate the scene in '85. The city comes alive in all its hedonistic, savage glory, a debaucherous cauldron of earthly delights and decadences. But Crow is no stranger to the city's seedy underbelly himself, even if he comes at it from the less rarefied air of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuy. All in all, he spends just three days there, but it's enough to send him on a new path in life. In three days, he manages to go from art thief to artist, and the luck that has gotten him this far in life manages to pull him somewhere new and unexpected.

Crow as a protagonist is tough to dislike, even though he gives you so many reasons to resist him. He's a con and a cheat, but he's honest about his dishonesty, in his own way. The son of a police officer who committed suicide in the early '70s, he's engaging for his flawed view on life, his sense of entitlement and his offbeat ethical side, which still manages to shine through. He's no role model, and this is no morality play --- but still he's someone with a nature that is imminently relatable.

Simmons and Hughes have based '85 on Simmons's novel THREE DAYS AS THE CROW FLIES, but familiarity with that previous work isn't needed to enjoy '85 --- although maybe a crash helmet is. It's a rocky landing back in time nearly a quarter of a century, but Simmons and Floyd capture it all well. Making your way on the streets of New York in 1985 was hardly easy, and there's no reason a book about it should be any less tough. That it's such a powerful and evocative tale is an extra treat.

Reviewed by John Hogan on December 22, 2010

by Danny Simmons and Floyd Hughes

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2008
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Atria
  • ISBN-10: 0743297814
  • ISBN-13: 9780743297813