TEN THOUSAND SAINTS by Eleanor Henderson

Book Quote:

“There was no induction ceremony, no melding of spit and blood. Those who tattooed themselves did it with no pressure from Jude or anyone else. The only thing they had to give was their word – no drinking, no drugs. Extra credit for no fucking or flesh eating.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (JUN 08, 2011)

It’s 1987 and New York’s lower east side and alphabet city are places for the homeless, vagrants, the impoverished, hippies, some immigrants who have held out through the next generation and some younger folks who call themselves “straight edge.” Straight edge refers to teenagers who like hard rock and punk but live a straight and clean lifestyle – no meat, no sex, no booze and no drugs. Many shave their heads and are into tattoos. That’s what Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson is about – a group of straight edge teens and their parents trying to understand themselves and one another as they venture through life, a lot of it in alphabet city in Manhattan.

The book opens up in Vermont in a city that sounds a lot like Burlington. Two teenagers who live there, Jude and Teddy, are way into drugs. They smoke weed, huff, drink , do mushrooms and basically try to stay high as often and for as long as they can. They also hate school and cut out as often as they can get away with it.

Jude has been adopted by parents who are now divorced, both semi-hippies. His mother blows glass for making bongs and his father, who lives in New York, sells weed for a living. Since his parents’ divorce, Jude’s father, Les, has been living in Manhattan and has been seeing a self-absorbed ballerina named Di. Di has a daughter named Eliza who plans to visit Vermont and wants to meet Jude. Eliza is a rich girl who has been kicked out of several boarding schools for drugs and truancy.

Teddy’s mother is an alcoholic who splits town on New Year’s Eve, the day of Teddy’s sixteenth birthday and the day that this book opens. Teddy has no idea who his father is. He has an older brother named Johnny who lives in New York and is into the straight edge lifestyle.

Jude and Teddy feel like outcasts in Vermont. They hang out with each other but basically don’t have other friends. They like to hang out at a record store and play music together. They’re teased a lot and just don’t fit in.

Eliza arrives in Vermont and parties with Teddy, sharing cocaine with him after he’s already huffed freon, and gasoline, smoked weed and drank. They also have sex. The next morning, Eliza is on her way back to Manhattan and Teddy is dead by OD. Jude is in the hospital with hypothermia and getting detoxed from all the substances he’s used. It was a close call for Jude but he makes it. When Jude gets out of the hospital, he decides to go live with his father in New York.

In New York, Eliza, Jude and Johnny become like a family of three. This is intensified when Eliza finds out that she is pregnant with Teddy’s baby from their one night together. Because Teddy is dead, Johnny really wants Eliza to have this baby to honor Teddy’s memory. Eliza is into this idea as well. She is also into Johnny who does not appear to be into girls.

Eliza and Jude embrace the straight edge lifestyle which is portrayed as a hair’s width from a cult. It embraces Hare Krishna and many Hindu concepts. Johnny is called Mr. Clean because of his devotion to Straight Edge and his fanatic adherence to its principles. It becomes ironic then when he says he is the father of Eliza’s child. In their minds, the parents are more likely to let them keep the baby if the father is alive.

Eliza runs away with Johnny so that she can have the baby. Her mother wants her to have an abortion but she won’t hear of this. The parents are portrayed as distant, absent or stoned. There is not one parent who is really present and attuned to their child’s life. Ironically, at one point in Jude’s childhood, his doctor thinks he may have fetal alcohol syndrome because of his dyslexia, facial structure and hyperactivity with ADD. Despite this possible diagnosis, Jude emerges as a real hero in the novel, a good guy with empathy and strong emotions. He may not have the best judgment but he turns himself into a leader who is respected.

They form a music band and Jude becomes a natural born leader of the group. They travel back to Vermont several times during the novel and recruit others for the band and for the straight edge lifestyle. The band travels up and down the coast and is even interviewed by different zines for their lyrics and overall music.

It is interesting to imagine the Tompkins Square Park of their day – filled with homeless, empty crack vials, condoms, and violence. Now, the same park is filled with nannies and babies and surrounded by million dollar condos. The book is careful to stay true to the New York of the late 1980’s and the gen X’ers who are looking for a place to fit in and make their mark. Ms. Henderson is not judgmental about straight edge but this reader felt that it became another sort of addiction for many of its followers.

The book was fascinating. At times it was repetitive and went off on some rabbit trails. It could have been about fifty pages shorter and been stronger for that editing. However, even with the length it stands at now – 383 pages – it is a fascinating book. I’ve never read a book that caught the gen X’ers so vividly and so perspicaciously. This accomplished novel does not read like a debut novel, which it is. Ms. Henderson is a writer with a rare talent.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 10 readers
PUBLISHER: Ecco (June 7, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Eleanor Henderson and her website
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Bewildered by Peter Rock


June 8, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Family Matters, NE & New York, New York City

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