‘The Optimistic Decade’ explores how to live authentically in turbulent political climate

Brooklyn BookBeat

April 3, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Heather Abel. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan
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Accomplished essayist Heather Abel makes an impressive fiction debut with “The Optimistic Decade,” expertly evoking a singular time and place — America in the 1980s and ’90s — with a moving and endearing story about idealism and good intentions gone wrong.

Abel, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Paris Review and Slate, will discuss “The Optimistic Decade” at Greenlight Bookstore on Wednesday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St. The Algonquin Authors in Conversation event will be moderated by author Mira Jacob.

“A coming-of-age story set in the age of Reagan and Bush, Heather Abel’s smart and biting novel asks a question that’s more relevant now than ever: Amid the maddening news of the world, how do you go about living an authentic life?” says Nathan Hill, author of “The Nix,” calling the novel “perceptive, funny and utterly original … a book for anyone who’s navigated the twin crises of idealism and youth.”

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Five people, each with a different idealistic bent, converge in an impoverished Colorado town in the heart of the Rockies. Caleb Silver is the charismatic founder of Llamalo, a back-to-the-land summer camp in the high desert. Don Talc and his son Donnie are ranchers who believe Caleb conspired to steal their land. David Cohen is a high school student who becomes a follower of Caleb and turns Llamalo into his personal religion. And Rebecca Silver is the devoted daughter of 1960s radicals, innocent in matters of sex and scornful of David’s passion. By year’s end, all of these converging lives will change forever.

Abel, who was raised in California and received her MFA from the New School, cites three impetuses behind the novel. “I was inspired by the American West itself,” she says.

“I lived in high desert Colorado and was moved not only by the open plateaus and looming mountains, but also by the emotions this landscape conjured in me and in generations of people before me — the desire to own it, to steal it, to claim it, to belong to it. I was inspired by my lifelong obsession with the hopes and failures of utopian dreams. And, as a former journalist, I was inspired by the awesomely destructive forces of energy booms and busts, how an oil company can so casually decimate a town and shatter lives. I was particularly interested in how the trajectory of a boom going bust mirrors that of idealism turning to disillusionment, of hope fading to despair.”

Framed by the oil shale bust and the real estate boom, by protests against Reagan and against the Gulf War, “The Optimistic Decade” is a sweeping novel about idealism, love, class and a piece of land that changes everyone who lives on it.

Abel attended Swarthmore College and subsequently worked as a reporter and editor for political newspapers. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and two daughters.


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