Thursday, April 12, 2012

Henderson Makes Ten Thousand Saints

In 1981, the American hardcore punk band Minor Threat produced a single 46-second song that became a defining moment for the hardcore punk subculture "straight edge." The song, Straight Edge, was written by Ian MacKaye and still has as much immediacy today at it did 30 years ago.

It is within this emerging subculture in 1988 that Ten Thousand Saints provides the perfect backdrop for the transformative story of Jude Keffy-Horn, a Vermont teenager who had been adopted by a pair of diehard hippies. It's also an unlikely beginning for someone who becomes paired with Johnny, a character who bears a striking resemblance to John Porcelly (Youth of Today) as inspiration, including his ties to Krishna.

Jude's adoptive mother makes glass bongs. His adoptive father has long since traded up the bucolic homestead for New York, where he still makes a living selling "quality" marijuana from his girlfriend's apartment. And his best friend, Teddy McNicholas, eeks out a marginal existence with him as they get high by whatever means are most available.

Ten Thousand Saints: A Novel is about family, rebellion, and a punk subculture. 

The book opens with Jude and Teddy getting high under the stadium seats of a football field on Dec. 31, 1987, in the fictional town of Lintonburg, Vermont. It's Jude's birthday. It's Teddy's last day.

The impact of Teddy's death and what he leaves behind will become the catalyst for Jude to reinvent himself and cement a bond between Eliza (the daughter of Jude's father's girlfriend) and Johnny (Teddy's half-brother). Jude, who initially blames himself for the death of his best friend, will eventually escape to New York City to restart his life with Les. And it is there in New York City that Jude will befriend Johnny and learn Eliza (who was visiting Lintonburg on the night Teddy died) is pregnant.

It is the friendship with Johnny, the guitarist in a hardcore straight edge punk band called Army Of One, that drives the novel forward. The relationship, assuming it is ever more than a mutual substitution, quickly becomes tested after Johnny devises a plan to protect Eliza from having to give up her and his half-brother's baby for adoption.

The coming-of-age story draws a contrast to generational interests and actions.

He intends to marry her, despite Jude's interest in Eliza and another secret that Johnny purposefully keeps from them. If that sounds heavy, expect more heaviness. The book deals also with drugs, deviance, lifestyle choices, sexuality, gentrification, religion, teen pregnancy, and the emerging threat of AIDs. There are enough themes, in fact, that some critics say the abundance of them detract.

I'm not so sure it is too much of a distraction. All of those issues were relative for the times. And although author Eleanor Henderson did not experience the straight edge scene firsthand, she had plenty of close sources to tap, including her husband, guitarist/bassist Aaron Squadrilli. She even includes in the acknowledgements that his story (or perhaps stories) made her fictional story possible. She also cites many other people who were part of the scene for their insights and inspirations.

If anything, the novel can be overtly descriptive in the details (but not to a determinant) and tends to meander along a thin plot made complex with all of aforementioned issues. In other words, it adds depth but also slows the pace of what happens in a single year.

Still, Henderson tackles most of it without trying to glamorize either hippies or the straight edge crowd by letting her characters play out their lives. And that becomes a relevant point in total. All these people are striving to identify with something, and yet none of them is necessarily comfortable with themselves.

If there is a climax, it can be easily described as the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988, when different groups (drug pushers, homeless people, punk rockers, and skinheads) took over the East Village park in protest over a 1 a.m. curfew imposed by the city. When police charged the protestors, a riot ensued.

Although Ten Thousands Saints is her debut novel, Henderson has also had her fiction appear in Agni, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and Columbia. Her story The Farms was selected for Best American Short Stories 2009. She now teaches as an assistant professor at Ithaca College in New York, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Ten Thousand Saints By Eleanor Henderson Pins 5.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

If you want a thinking novel that scratches the surface of the straight edge scene in the late 1980s with some real stories woven into the fabric of fiction, this is an excellent choice. Although structured as a linear biopic that drags at times, Henderson still brings an interesting perspective to family and rebellion, one that will be hard to forget.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson is available on Amazon. You can also order Ten Thousand Saints from Barnes & Noble. On iTunes, the audio version is read by Steven Kaplan, who brings a quiet intelligence to many of the characters, especially Jude. The book is also on iBooks.
blog comments powered by Disqus