Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson
(New York: Ecco, 2011)
"Adopted by a pair of diehard hippies, restless, marginal Jude Keffy-Horn spends much of his youth getting high with his best friend, Teddy, in their bucolic and deeply numbing Vermont town. But when Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude's relationship with drugs and with his parents devolves to new extremes. Sent to live with his pot-dealing father in New York City's East Village, Jude stumbles upon straight edge, an underground youth culture powered by the paradoxical aggression of hardcore punk and a righteous intolerance for drugs, meat, and sex. With Teddy's half brother, Johnny, and their new friend, Eliza, Jude tries to honor Teddy's memory through his militantly clean lifestyle. But his addiction to straight edge has its own dangerous consequences. While these teenagers battle to discover themselves, their parents struggle with this new generation's radical reinterpretation of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll and their grown-up awareness of nature and nurture, brotherhood and loss.
"Moving back and forth between Vermont and New York City, Ten Thousand Saints is an emphatically observed story of a frayed tangle of family members brought painfully together by a death, then carried along in anticipation of a new and unexpected life. With empathy and masterful skill, Eleanor Henderson has conjured a rich portrait of the modern age and the struggles that unite and divide generations."
"'Is it dreamed?' Jude asks Teddy. 'Or dreamt?'"
Perhaps I was feeling unusually uncharitable here, as I read this one right after Imperial Bedrooms and had had it up to here with drug-addled adolescents before I tackled the first chapter. That said, Ten Thousand Saints didn't overwhelm me. It wasn't repugnant the way IB was, and the characters here were rather more sympathetic -- partly because it's set in the '80s and definitely conveys that this was a different time, and partly because it's easier to excuse adolescent behavior when it actually comes from adolescents.
And perhaps I just bring too much of my own baggage to the story. Jude and Teddy are of my generation, a mere two years older than I am, which means I should be able to relate to their world ... but I really can't. Sure, I grew up 30 miles from the NYC where much of the story is set, but that may as well have been another universe, and my suburban adolescence was probably more sheltered than most. Mine wasn't a drugging or even hard drinking crowd, if the motley handful of not-yet-cool nerds I occasionally socialized with constituted a "crowd" at all. I never had any burning desire to fit in either with the stoners who make up Jude & Teddy's clique at the beginning, and I don't think I knew such a thing as straight-edge existed at the time. Punk, yes, but much as I loved the music, I was well aware a big-haired teeny bopper from the 'burbs would have been eaten alive in that environment. Instead, I contented myself with volunteering at a crisis line throughout high school and growing vicariously wise through the lives that touched me there.
It's interesting, too, to look back on the '80s with enough distance and perspective that you're aware of the hallmarks of the era. As a middle and high schooler, I knew something about the culture and history of the 1920s or '40s or '60s -- enough to reference an era convincingly in a term paper, or make guesses about how my grandparents' adolescence differed from my parents' or my own. But I couldn't articulate what made the '80s the '80s or what future generations would see as the hallmarks of my decade, any more than my daughter can define the 2010s or a particularly conscious fish could tell you what it's like to breathe water rather than air. Ten Thousand Saints depicts the era as a very long, unglamorous morning after the hedonistic '70s, with the principals' parents as the clueless hung over guests you just know will spend the next week bragging about how awesome the party was and how wasted they were, and Jude, Johnny, and Eliza the housemates who get stuck cleaning up all the spilled food and broken glass. Jude's mom, Harriet, is the canonical leftover hippie, naming her kids after Beatles songs (Jude's sister is Prudence), selling handblown glass in a small town in Vermont, and earning the bulk of her income selling bongs; his father, Lester, is a successful Manhattan pot grower who takes pride in being a cool, approachable pseudo-stepdad to his girlfriend's daughter Eliza but hasn't bothered to contact his own kids in who knows how long. After Teddy's death, Jude and Eliza's guilt leads them (with Johnny's help) to discover the no-drugs, no-drinking, no-sex world of straight edge, drawing spiritual sustenance from a Hare Krisha temple whose connection to the former is never exactly clear.
Henderson's writing is clear, understated, and sad, and the setting an interesting, unusual one. I only wish the characters (yes, this is always a sticking point for me) felt big or complex enough to live up to it. The book was OK, and I finished it -- but it felt more like a duty than a pleasure to get through (although it did get somewhat better in the latter part).