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Review of Ten Thousand Saints

June 2, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

Ten Thousand Saints, the edgy debut novel by Eleanor Henderson, portrays the dark and painful journey of Jude Keffy-Horn through his troubled teen years.  Jude and his best friend, Teddy McNicholas are misfits who live in Lintonberg – “the biggest city in Vermont.” Jude is the red-headed, hyperactive teenager with attention deficit disorder who is “good-looking enough” and Teddy is dark enough to be passed off as Jewish, Arab, Mexican or Greek who has a “delicate frame” and wears duct-taped Air Jordans.
It’s the late 80s and both the parents and the children in this story are deeply flawed.  Jude’s mother, Harriet, is an aging hippie who makes bongs and pipes to pay the bills and Teddy’s mother, Queen Bee, is an overweight drunken mess who has been known to disappear now and then.  Jude’s father, Lester, was a master pot grower before leaving for NYC when Jude was nine.  Teddy’s father is dead, he thinks.  Eliza is the troubled young girl who propels the story forward.
Jude and Teddy shuffle through their days scavenging for drug money.  Jude probes a finger into the coin return slots of pay phones and vending machines, and hits up his mom, Harriet, or his sister, Prudence.  It’s mostly Jude who wants drugs; Teddy just wants a bus ticket out but ultimately they both want to leave Lintonberg.  Teddy wants to join his brother Johnny who left home at 16 for NYC and is now tattooing full-time and playing in a straight edge band.  “Straight edge kids don’t fornicate,” one character says. “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t breathe…but the music’s pretty wicked.”
The turning point of the narrative takes place on New Year’s Eve when Lester’s girlfriend’s daughter Eliza arrives from the city to spend time with Jude.  After a night of partying with Jude and Eliza, Teddy dies of an overdose.  When Jude recovers from the ordeal, he escapes to NYC where he meets up with Teddy’s brother Johnny.  In an effort to leave his past behind and escape the guilt he feels over Teddy’s death, he embraces the straight edge culture and hooks up once again with Eliza who may be carrying Teddy’s child. He struggles to find meaning, to sort it all out and to do the right thing.
Henderson delves deeply into the NYC 80s scene and creates a vividly detailed snapshot of that time period that is a painful but compelling read.  She nails the straight edge subculture down to every last piece of hardcore music as well as the alienation and rudderlessness of a generation, while at the same time paying tribute to the people who lived through it and enlightening those of us who were on the fringes.
In lesser hands, this cast of misfits and flawed characters would be lost at sea.  There would seem to be no points on the horizon to fix one’s eyes in order to bring the boat home safely.  And yet, under Henderson’s masterful skill, they do survive and meet the next day. A riveting read and I highly recommend it!

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