This novel's advance copy comes filled with breathless "in-house praise" and a back cover full of promotional strategies. This energetic campaign may reflect the mood of the setting, the straight-edge hardcore punk scene of 1988, and the chapter near the end which takes in the Tompkins Square Park anti-gentrification riot in Mayor Koch's Manhattan, but it also attests to the confidence that Eleanor Henderson brings to her debut novel. Nearly four-hundred pages, it follows the convoluted year in the relationships between Jude Keffy-Horn and his father's girlfriend's daughter, and the complications when she, Eliza, starts once she finds herself in an all-too familiar teenage predicament.
The story shuttles between Lintonburg (~Burlington), Vermont, and NYC's Alphabet City. I did not find either locale as intricately evoked as I'd expected, although the places gain sufficient detail. Neither did I find Henderson's prose, an indirect narration that subtly filters the characters' perspectives (if sometimes too subtly, as the tone often blurs as the controlling narrator tends to dominate), as quotable or dazzling. The novel's more traditional than the summary may make it seem.
The author's aiming here to instead focus on characterization of the half-dozen or so late-hippie-era pot-addled parents who found themselves deserted by and deserting their children. Some of them, as here, grow up to embrace, if for a time, the austerity of a celibate, vegan, and Hare Krishna-core punk ethos as an alternative and search for loyalty, purity, and idealism. The trouble solved by eschewing stimulants leads to its own dangers, kids being kids, and revenge and payback natural temptations for young people seeking to join up "true till death."
Henderson charts the tensions between teenaged ambitions and profane temptations, and the gang-like element that coheres around the Green Mountain Boys which Jude sings with for me was a clever theme to explore. This was the reason I chose to read this book, but as it went along, the sounds themselves and the squalor of the spartan lifestyle lived in vans and on tour albeit told well recedes as the difficulty of keeping one's self upright and honest becomes the larger message. As with the Hindu elements, the punk scene was more the backdrop after a while than the main plot, which instead hones in on family ties unraveling, attenuating, and reconnecting as exes reunite and bicker and spar and contend to keep their offspring apart from their former and present partners.
Without revealing the consequences of such hard-won truths, suffice to say that the novel moves along smartly. I found it at times intriguing for an aspect that some readers may find challenging. Henderson prefers to delay exposition of certain plot pivots until a few pages after one character begins to divulge the twist. She is to be commended for this daring, but this may put off as many readers as it may win over. However, the book's largely free of the MFA-style of showy prose and self-aggrandizing displays that many of her peers attempt to sell as fiction these days, and at the heart of this sprawling tale is an elaboration of counter-cultural but still persistent, however tattooed, stoned, and amplified, family values in the late Reagan years.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2011: Mostly set in the Lower East Side of 1980s New York City, Ten Thousand Saints is that rare book that paints scenes so vividly you can imagine the movie in your head. I wanted to live inside its pages, where I could imagine not just the scenes themselves, but the cameras, the lights, the actors reading their lines off to the sides of the set. Main character Jude Keffy-Horn--named after a Beatles song by his adoptive hippy parents--spends his high school days in small town Vermont getting high with his best friend Teddy, waiting to turn 16, when he can legally drop out. When Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude is sent to live with his pot-dealer father in New York City. Jude soon falls in with a group of straight edge Hari Krishnas, where his commitment to abstinence in all forms--drugs, sex, meat--becomes an addiction itself. Jude struggles to create an identity amongst the extreme movements taking root downtown, while his parents struggle to understand their son’s rejection of their free love culture. Author Eleanor Henderson's meticulous research into the straight edge movement in the late 1980s has opened a door to a piece of history handled with love, care, and incredibly unforgettable characters. --Alexandra Foster