You’ve been punked. There are few halos in view in this ensemble coming-of-age tale. Sixteen-year-old Jude Keffy-Horn, named for the saint of lost causes, and maybe a Beatles song, is a lost soul of a teenager. He lives a fairly meaningless existence in Lintonberg, Vermont (by which we mean Burlington), filled with drugs and rock and roll, if no sex yet. He is prone to angry outbursts and has trouble concentrating in school. His bff is Teddy, the product of an alcoholic, erratic mother and a possibly dead father.
Parents are absent in abundance in Lintonberg. Busy dealing pot in New York City, Jude’s father, Lester, only rarely gets in touch. Teddy has no recollection of his father at all. His mom says he died, but Teddy is not so sure. Teddy’s half-brother, Johnny, living now in New York City, has a career criminal for a father. Thankfully, pops is safely tucked away behind bars. Teddy and Jude spend much of their time in chemically-induced altered states. Teddy suffers a shock when his substance and responsibility-challenged mother abandons him.
Things take a further turn in Lintonberg when Jude’s father sends his girlfriend’s far-too-worldly fifteen-year-old daughter, Eliza, to visit. She accompanies the two friends to a boisterous party. Substances are abused a step too far. Teddy winds up a Ted-sicle. Jude winds up depressed and Eliza winds up preggers. Jude heads south with his sad song and tries to make it better.
Eleanor Henderson, in Ten Thousand Saints
, offers us a trip down memory lane to the 1980s. Well, maybe it’s more of an alley. Henderson is trying to capture the feel of the straight-edge subculture that grew out of the punk rock movement, and entailed abstinence from drugs, alcohol, sex and meat.
In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Henderson said,
I couldn't have written this book without my husband, Aaron. Growing up, he spent a lot of time on St. Mark's Place in New York, where his mother lived for 25 years, and it was there that he first encountered the straight-edge hardcore scene in the late 1980s. His stories about that period and that place always appealed to me, and I knew that I wanted to capture them, to perform some kind of ethnography. It was the paradox of the subculture that fascinated me the most—teenage boys playing angry music and swearing off drugs?" (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/45851-novel-undertakings-first-fiction-2011.html)
Well, of course, it is particularly tough to be straight in a bent world. The AIDS crisis is blossoming into full flower and fear is in the air, as is rage. There is street violence, police abuse and all the fun things one associates with Manhattan’s pre-gentrified East Village and Lower East Side, along with a dose of Krishna Konsciousness. (Violence takes place back in Vermont, as well, lest one think this is being portrayed as a New Punk City thing.)
Henderson casts a passing glance at the gentrification pressure that was well underway by the 1987 setting. And there is never any doubt that the time period is the 80’s. To pepper a story with references to a place or time adds flavor. But when the entire shaker is upended it makes the meal unpalatable. If there was a band that was at all punkish in the 1980s it is probably mentioned here. Yes, yes, yes, we get it.
Aside from beating us about the head with time references, Henderson offers characters that are very flawed. A few scars or an irregular sense of right and wrong can allow one to relate to and engage with characters. But it helps if they are likeable. In Ten Thousand Saints
, not so much. The adults do not come off too well, a criminal doing time, a criminal doing business, a psycho mom, and the occasional sane parent. Is it any wonder the kids are far from all right? For so many of the young characters, bad choice follows bad choice. Perhaps that is too dark a shade with which to paint the entire cast. There are some are endearing moments in which characters jump into real-mode for a while, wrestle with tough moral questions. Johnny, Teddy’s half-brother, a tattoo-artist-rocker, seemed the most developed, and sympathetic. He confronts real choices about his preferences, tries to be the adult in a world of children, even though he is a teenager himself, takes on responsibility and goes above and beyond to try to make right as many things as possible. I found some of the choices presented in the final wrap-up very, very questionable, but I will not spoil that here.
While the tiny straight-edge movement may hold interest for Henderson, whose cognizance of it is second hand, it strikes me as just another form of extremism, borne along by the youthful exuberance of its participants.
Henderson’s writing shows considerable promise. When the characters come alive, it is vibrant. And a bit of literary ambition pokes through from time to time. There is a scene in which a homeless, naked pregnant woman is seen running down a street, clearly offering metaphorical support for one of Henderson’s characters. Jude is badly scarred physically by a bad, drug-induced choice he makes. Nice symbolism for the damage we all inflict on ourselves by our bad choices. When Jude leaves Vermont for NYC, the house he leaves had been left half done by his father, Lester, when he had left. It is a jumble of things incomplete, a kitchen lacking drawers, rooms with pipes and insulation but no dropped ceiling, a nice image for a person who is incomplete as he sets off to find, and maybe construct himself.
But the whole just does not pull together for me. The characters are not nearly likeable enough. And failing likeability, not engaging enough. If you don’t care all that much for the characters in a story it is tough to care much for the story. How that manifested for me was that I found myself resisting returning to the book. It took much longer to read than its length merited. I would certainly look at Henderson’s next big work, but while Ten Thousand Saints
has some intriguing elements, I expect Henderson’s best work is yet to come.
The title comes from a quote from the book of Jude, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all.
According to many sources, the “saints” in the introductory quote could just as easily be angels, which summons to mind Angels in America, the 1991 play about AIDS. As AIDS figures in the book, it might be what the author had in mind.
Or they could be the dead, redeemed and coming back with JC to exact some judgment on the unworthy. Maybe, in this context, she might be referring to the unpleasant view of some that the AIDS epidemic was a judgment by god on godless homosexuals and, I suppose, Haitians.