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BOOK REVIEW

Author gets off to fast start with ‘Ten Thousand Saints’

By Julie Wittes Schlack
June 23, 2011

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It is the last morning of 1987, Jude is turning 16 years old, and he and his best friend, Teddy, lie under the bleachers of a college football stadium, smoking dope. Jude is the adopted son of Harriet and Les; Teddy doesn’t know who his father is and has just been abandoned by his mother. The two are determined to go to New York, live with Teddy’s half-brother Johnny, a punk musician and tattoo artist, and start a band. Over the course of the day, Teddy will have sex for the first and last time in his life; Jude will get beaten up; and the two friends will smoke, snort, and huff themselves to oblivion, and to Teddy’s death.

That’s just the beginning. Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel bursts out of the gate with all of the drive and sensory assault of the punk music that infuses it. Set in the (needlessly) fictional town of Lintonburg, Vt., (can you spell Burlington?) and in New York City, “Ten Thousand Saints’’ is a classic coming-of-age novel, with tattoos. But more than a story of young people on the cusp of adulthood, it’s also a story of a neighborhood and movement on the verge of transformation.

When Jude steals a large cache of pot after Teddy’s death, his mother sends him to live with his father. Les is a pot grower and dealer living in the East Village, and though he’s had practically no contact with his children since leaving Vermont when Jude was 9, he has more fully embraced the role of father to Eliza, his girlfriend’s 15-year old daughter. It is she who was Teddy’s sexual partner on the last night of his life.

When Eliza discovers she’s pregnant, Johnny and Jude’s relationship coalesces around her, and Jude, in his desire to be a strong and righteous man instead of a stoned and scared boy, embraces the ideology of Straight Edge. Embodied by Johnny, this branch of punk endorses a drug-and-alcohol-free, vegetarian, and largely celibate lifestyle, free of every vice except a sometimes shocking but strangely comprehensible violence.

While author Henderson provides a fascinating history of this movement, at its heart this is a book about what it means to create a family, as opposed to inheriting one. The three protagonists are kids trying to be adults and worthy guardians of Teddy’s unborn child, but with no models of maturity in their lives to emulate. Johnny and Teddy’s mother was a drunk who fled when the going got tough. Eliza’s mother is too self-involved to notice her daughter’s early pregnancy. Les is a quirky and fundamentally kind man, but too in love with his pipe and product to exert a sustained influence on anyone. Jude’s mother, Harriet, comes closest to being an observant and responsible parent, but even she makes her living as a glass blower who produces bongs and relies on educational pamphlets as a surrogate for tough parent-child conversations.

Henderson is a versatile ventriloquist, taking us briskly and believably into the minds and hearts of most of her major characters (though Eliza, while briefly vivid, turns into exactly what the boys treat her as, which is a passive plot device). Though it loses some steam as it hurtles toward a happy ending, “Ten Thousand Saints’’ is at its best when depicting the punk scene in New York in the 1980s and its amalgam of homeless junkies, vegan Hinduists, early AIDS victims, and antigentrification activists. It’s an auspicious debut, and gives us reason to hope that Eleanor Henderson will mature as satisfyingly as her subjects do.

Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities, can be reached at jwschlack@gmail.com.

TEN THOUSAND SAINTS By Eleanor Henderson

Ecco, 388 pp., $26