Sunday, July 3, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints

Wow. I never would have thought of myself as the audience for TenThousand Saints. Me and my historical fiction, my Dickens, my English novels about manners and colonialism? This is a novel about leftover hippies, yuppie invasions, pot sellers, zines, militant punks, AIDS, Vermont and New York City in the 1980's but this vigorous, imaginative, debut novel by Eleanor Henderson is packed with authenticity and mature storytelling.
Ten Thousand Saints is the story of Jude Keffy-Horn. He was raised by adoptive, divorced, hippy parents in a small city in Vermont. On the last day of 1987 Jude’s best friend and partner in getting high, music and skipping school, Teddy, dies of an overdose. He had spent the previous night doing numerous drugs and having sex with Jude’s sort of stepsister, Eliza. Jude and Teddy were just shy of their sixteenth birthdays when this happened. Sixteen was the magical number that meant quitting school and committing completely to getting wasted as often and for as long as possible lifestyle. Teddy's death is a bit of a wake call for Jude's Mother and he is sent to live with his pot farmer Father in NYC.

Surprisingly choosing to surround Jude with endless pot and place him in a city where anything is within arm’s reach does the trick. Jude careens from one extreme to another but instead of an excess of waste and drugs he becomes involved in the straight edge punk scene ( a combo of Hare Krishna and Hindu principles with a dab of cultish-ness mixed in) and embraces the total abstinence of drugs, sex and meat. Jude's parents would rather he be on a continual high than reject their choices with these new addictions but no matter. Jude creates his own family. There is Eliza, a scared prep school dropout who may be pregnant with Teddy's child and Teddy's militantly straight edge brother Johnny, a tattoo artist and musician.

Jude’s new life is centered on three things: honoring Teddy’s memory, music and trying to outrun his parents mistakes. The most prominent manifestation of Teddy is Eliza’s pregnancy. All three: Jude, Eliza and Johnny go to great lengths to try and make sure Eliza can have the baby. Music, forming a band, is a big point of passion in the novel and it is the story’s entrée into much of the pop culture history of the 1980’s.

This is the kind of panoramic novel that is usual to see centered on revolutions and multigenerational sagas about settling the American west. It’s much rarer to see this big vision brought to a relatively small time period and cast but Henderson does just that. She shines a light on this grimy world and the violence of growing up in it for this generation. This is unsentimental, strong storytelling.

Reading Ten Thousands Saints is an engrossing experience. The characters, the dialog and the settings are so wholly believable incarnations the 1980’s that it is like going through a time machine. There are a few moments when the editor could have used a stronger hand but that is a very minor observation, nothing that interferes with your enjoyment with the book. Eleanor Henderson is to be applauded for writing such a vivid, accomplished first novel.

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