Ten Thousand Saints is a very well written book that for some reason failed to resonate with me. It may be a generational thing but I doubt it as I've been charmed by many other coming of age books. I think that the ability of the author to write so vividly, actually sculpting grand theater of the mind may have worked against her a little. The characters were placed in such dark places that the actual story needed to be a grand epic to pull them out of the reader's mental despair.
One of the main characters dies of a drug overdose in the story's set up and exists in the remainder of the book as a point of reference. I didn't find any of the characters to interest me or have me sympathize with their plight though I wanted to, I really did.
I must admit that I continued reading until the very end as the author managed to bring this sad and cautionary tale of drugs and living on the fringe in NYC to life. I kept hoping to relate with someone, anyone, in the pages but for me this never happened. I'm giving the author's writing skills 5 stars but the story only gets 2 stars. I'm rounding down on this one. I'm sure there are many readers more into this New York scene than I & I'm hoping they discover this work. I'm also looking forward to the next work by Eleanor Henderson - she had a good start with this one & I'm sure she has better works ahead, she's certainly capable.
I have to admit that it's somewhat difficult for me to review this book objectively, because it reminded me of, but never came close to being as good as, one of my all-time favorite books. There is much about "Ten Thousand Saints" that is reminiscent of Michael Cunningham's "A Home at the End of the World," which is a book I have read four times and cherish. But Eleanor Henderson has nowhere near Michael Cunningham's talent for drawing characters about whom a reader cares. Perhaps the problem was that "Ten Thousand Saints" went on much longer than it needed to to made its point, so that boredom lead to disengagement. But while I do believe the book would have benefited from more rigorous editing, I'm not sure it would have made me like this book. I only intermittently cared about a couple of the characters, and most I didn't care about at all. Moreover, I actually found myself having to stop several times and remind myself which character was which; they blended together very easily, largely because the all had the same "voice." I also felt as though the whole "straight-edge" aspect of the book was merely added on in an attempt to give the book something to distinguish itself from the myriad other "coming-of-age-under-traumatic-circumstances" novel. In the end, it just didn't move me, provoke any deep thought in me, or even really entertain me.
The new novel TEN THOUSAND SAINTS is certainly interesting and to me at least quite original. The book begins on New Year's Eve 1987 in fictional college town Lintonburg,VT (um if you notice Lintonburg contains the exact same letters as Burlington the home of the University of Vermont and the fictional and real cities have many similarities). Two young teenagers, Teddy and Jude, are out partying with their new friend Eliza from Manhattan and tragically Teddy is found dead the next morning after among other things huffing Freon and snorting cocaine. Both Jude and Eliza feel very guilty because Jude pressed the Freon on him and Eliza supplied the cocaine. Actually Eliza offered Teddy more than cocaine that night and she soon discovers she is pregnant from her one time encounter with the now deceased teenager. Eliza, Jude and Teddy's older half brother Johnny form a family of sorts who hope to raise Teddy's baby.
Adults are as important to the story as the teenagers and the effects of parents' actions on their children is a major theme of the book. Jude and his sister Prudence's divorced parents both make their living from marijuana as their dad Les is a prosperous grower and dealer while their artist mother Harriet, perhaps the most stable parent in the novel, makes her living from blowing glass bongs and pipes. Eliza's mom who at the beginning of the story is also Les's girlfriend is a self absorbed ballerina while Teddy and Johnny's mom is an aging hippie known for disappearing when ever things get uncomfortable. Johnny's dad is a prison inmate and Teddy's dad is an unknown man of Asian Indian descent who turns up toward the end of the book and is not what this reader at least expected.
The teenagers turn to Straight Edge music with the accompanying austere lifestyle strongly influenced by Hare Krishna beliefs. It is implied that this is a reaction against their parents' hedonistic ways. Johnny who is a musician and tattoo artist living in the Tompkins Square Park area of Manhattan's alphabet city marries Eliza in hopes of giving his dead brother's baby a chance to stay under his influence even though he has no romantic interest in women. Johnny seems to epitomize the Straight Edge lifestyle and is known as Mr. Clean because of his shaved head and vegan habits.
TEN THOUSAND SAINTS is a novel well worth reading. AIDS, homelessness, gentrification, parenthood, adoption, and drug use are among the many topics incorporated in the book. The author does a great job of bringing the late 1980's in the East Village to detailed life and the choices of the kids and parents in the book will linger in the reader's memory. And the book ends with a very appropriate and effective postscript from 2006 on the last night the famed punk venue CBGB's was open.
on July 31, 2012
Jude and Teddy are childhood friends growing up in Vermont in the late 1980s. They do nearly everything together--cut school, take drugs, steal, listen to and play hardcore music, and dream of a "real life" away from what they know. Teddy's mother has just disappeared, leaving him to fend for himself and turn to Jude and his family for support. On New Year's Eve, Teddy and Jude meet up with Eliza, the daughter of Jude's father's girlfriend, and they take her to a party in search of fun and drugs (although not necessarily in that order). The party turns their lives upside down in more ways than one, and after they put Eliza back on a train to New York City, Teddy dies of an accidental drug overdose.
Overcome with grief over the death of his best friend, yet unable to express himself, Jude heads to New York and finds Johnny, Teddy's straight-edge half-brother. (Straight-edge kids swear off drugs, alcohol, sex, and often meat, but follow the hardcore punk scene.) When they find out that Eliza is pregnant with Teddy's child from their encounter at the party the night he died, Johnny sees this as a chance to form a real family, one that has escaped him for so long. Yet he must deal with the demons inside himself, as well as Jude's jealousy, on so many different levels. This is a book about finding yourself and realizing what makes a family, about the hardcore music scene of the late 1980s and the changing demographics of New York City, and about trying to avoid making the same mistakes your parents made.
I thought this book was pretty fantastic. Eleanor Henderson created some truly memorable characters and gave each surprising depth, which made me feel truly invested in what happened to them. There were a few times I worried the book would veer into overly dramatic plot twists, but each time, Henderson remained true to the characters and her story, and I was grateful for that. No one is infallible in this book, much as in life, and that is what made the story so appealing to me--although I couldn't necessarily identify with all of the characters and what they were going through, I felt as if all of the characters were realistic, particularly to the places and time in which the book took place. I flew through this book and of course, I'm sorry I finished it so quickly, because I want more. But I look forward to seeing what Henderson comes up with next!
I should admit right up front that I tend not to read "hot" new fiction until a few years after its published, partly because I already have plenty of stacks of unread books in my house, and partly because I feel like that gives it time to cool down, and I'll have more data (ie. friends' opinions) to draw upon before decided to commit to reading it. However, this debut was an exception -- mainly because so many people were telling me that the late-'80s iteration of the straight-edge hardcore subculture that I was a part of plays a huge role in the plot. Now, I know that's a pretty weak reason to pick up a book, but what can I say -- curiosity got the better of me. I was deeply into that scene from 1987-91, and though I experienced mainly down in D.C. (RIP, Safari Club), I drove up to shows at the Anthrax, and the Ritz, and knew plenty of people who were bands, started record labels, did 'zines, etc. and 25 years later, I remain one of the few from that time who's still straight edge.
What I found was not untypical of a first novel: a somewhat haphazard, awkwardly paced and plotted story that crams in way too much and feels like it needs another few drafts to reach a finished, polished state. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of good writing and good storytelling, but it's side-by-side (ha ha, inside joke for my straight edge brethren) with bad writing, soap opera plot developments, clunky transitions, and even a feel-good coda. The book starts extremely strongly, under some high-school bleachers in Burlington, Vermont (for some reason, recast as "Lintonburg" -- why bother?), where we meet Jude and Teddy, two teenage misfits whose main ambition in life is getting chemically stimulated. A visit from Jude's not-quite stepsister from Manhattan (with the unfortunately transparent last name "Urbanski" -- I mean, come on!) is the catalyst for tragedy and change, as Teddy dies and Jude moves to New York.
It it Jude's journey that leads us through the book, as he gets to know his father, who has been largely absent from his life. He also falls in with Teddy's older brother, who is a fixture of the burgeoning New York City hardcore scene, with his straight-edge band Army of One. (Note: those who would like to read more about this subculture should check out All Ages: Reflections on Straight Edge, a book of interviews that includes a number of people from that era of the scene, or the anthology Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics -- unfortunately the two more academic ethnographies of the subculture are kind of weak. And if you want to hear a sampling of the music, start with the New York City Hardcore compilation from 1988, and go from there.) Anyway, the straight edge stuff is relevant to the story because Jude's parents are both aging hippies who, in different ways, make their living from the pot trade, and his stepsister is a stereotypically spoiled rich Manhattan brat with access to lots of drugs, and in the straight edge scene, he finds a path to a more meaningful life in the wake of the death of his best friend. This is a bit overdone (does it really have to be both parents who make a living off weed, can't it be a little more nuanced than that?), but more or less works.
The reason the book didn't work for me is that the author also brings in all kinds of other stuff, such a teen pregnancy and resulting soap opera antics, AIDS, fetal alcohol syndrome, an attempted portrait of the late '80s pre-gentrified Lower East Side, including the characters direct involvement with the real-life Tompkins Square riot, and most of all, a large subplot involving concealed homosexuality. (The homosexuality angle had the potential to be interesting within the context of the characters involved, but the author oddly muddies the waters by suggesting multiple times that the straight edge subculture was some form of mask for latent homosexuality.) It's just too much stuff, too many themes, and the author only has partial control over it. There are characters who have some great moments here and there (for example, Jude's mother's ineffectualness as a parent), but they're too few and far between, and some characters whose voices are too muted. I ultimately feel like it all would have worked better as a series of separate or linked short stories, with maybe one novella devoted to Jude.
I can't say many good things about this book. While I think the plot and overall storyline are interesting, the book falls flat on its face pretty quickly. I felt that everything drags in this book, and I never found myself developing any kind of attachment to the characters, so I really didn't care what happened to anyone in the end. The writing style is actually good, too, but something about the book just didn't come together for me in the end. I do not recommend it.
on January 2, 2012
I'm about two-thirds of the way through this book and have finally decided to put it down for good. The author seems to have talent but the subject matter isn't involving and I don't find the story authentic. She's obviously done tons of research but that's exactly the way the book reads, like she's citing research facts about New York and the Lower East Side in the 80s -- like lists of things, what music characters are listening to, or what you might have found on the corner of St. Mark's Place and 1st Avenue, or what happened at such and such a time in Tompkins Square Park. I lived in New York then and was looking forward to having that great experience of feeling immersed in a place I know, but I never got that feeling, reading this, not for a minute. (For example, what about the food in that neighborhood? What about all the cheap Indian places and Russian places and delis, and all the stuff we love about the Lower East Side that makes the setting so rich? She just does not inhabit that place at all, not the way a downtown New York story really requires.) There's something intriguing about a tale in which the children of drug-addled hipster parents are completely neglected, and how they manage to survive (or not, one of the more unpleasant aspects of the book), but that's not the story the author wants to tell. She leaves that subject to move into another, less interesting one, about the "straight edge" movement (hardcore bands who did no drugs, had no sex, and ate no meat) and that just left me cold. I don't believe Ms Henderson lived this life at all and she's not skilled enough yet to make us believe a fiction about it. (Ps -- kids in the 80s were not using sarcasms like "Whatever.") Time to move on.
Ten Thousand Saints revolves around the life of Jude, a sixteen year old coming of age in the late 1980's. Jude was adopted at birth by parents who proudly called themselves hippies. Now, as he tries to determine who he is, they have split; his mother a glassblower in Vermont and his father a drug dealer in New York City. Jude doesn't do well at school; he doesn't have many friends, and he's not sure why his life isn't working out. His one true friend is Teddy, who is also from a broken home.
On New Year's Eve of 1987, several events happen. Jude's father's girlfriend's daughter, Eliza, comes to town for a few hours to meet Jude and his sister, a suggestion by Les, the father. Jude and Teddy take Eliza to a party where Teddy and Eliza end up together and Jude ends up being beat up by the local football hero and the local drug dealer. Finally, as the year ends, Jude and Teddy get high and Teddy dies.
As the battle between Jude and the local toughs intensifies, his parents decide that he should move to New York for a while to live with Les. Once there, Jude meets up with Johnny, Teddy's big brother who moved to the city several years ago. Johnny introduces Jude to Straight Edge, a militant group that worships music and bans drugs, alcohol, sex and eating meat. Jude falls in with this group, joining Johnny's band and then eventually starting one of his own.
The book follows Jude's life for a year as he moves from group to group, cleaving to friends then breaking apart, always searching for what will make sense of his life. The adults in his world don't seem to have made any more sense of their lives than he has, and Jude must determine what will work for him to move forward.
This book is recommended for all readers interested in determining life paths. For many, it will be nostalgic of the time period, while others may read and wonder how all of this occurred. The book covers other topics; unplanned pregnancies, the birth of gay liberation and the AIDS epidemic, the band scene, the gentrification of New York City and the sense that life happens whether or not one is ready for it. This is a debut novel by Eleanor Henderson and readers will be waiting eagerly for her next book, ready to see what new topics she will tackle.
I wanted to read this book. I was so excited to get a copy. I was hoping this book would be a sort of companion to Hilary Thayer Hamann's Anthropology of an American Girl, a wonderful debut novel about a teen set in 1980's NY last year. It was one of my favorites of 2010, and I felt it was true gem. I did not feel the same about Eleanor Henderson's ponderous tome of drug use among parents and teens and "Straight Edge"/ hard core culture. It just didn't resonate with me, as truthful, believable or meaningful.
There are several main players in the novel, but Jude(an adopted child, possibly afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, named after the Beatles song OR possibly St. Jude, depending on which parent he asks)seems to be the character most of the action revolves around in the story. The novel opens with the unfortunate adventures of Jude and Teddy, ending with Teddy's death brought on by cocaine and huffing chemicals from Jude's home air conditioning unit in Vermont. The year is 1987. This is pretty much where the author, obviously a talented writer and extensive researcher, lost me.
The book has an almost overwhelming array of characters, ranging from Jude's dysfunctional family, to Eliza, the last girl Teddy was with, and Teddy's half brother, Johnny. In between there are many connections between these three teens. Eliza is Jude's dad Les's girlfriend's daughter in NYC. Johnny also resides in NYC, living in an Alphabet City "apartment" (he squats there), as an amateur (but popular, tattoo artist, who embraces the "Straight Edge" life style, a hard core rock/punk movement that promotes self denial and clean living, including celibacy, veganism/vegetarianism, no smoking,/drinking and attending the local Hare Krishna temple. There are more characters, but just about each and everyone is majorly dysfunctional, using or dealing marijuana heavily, wasting their lives, misguiding their children(if they are parents), or doing things to themselves they know are dangerous, stupid or morally wrong and/or hypocritical.
The book needed a bit more editing, perhaps. I see the enthusiasm in the author for her subject, particularly the "Straight Edge" scene, which she obviously researched heavily (maybe she was involved herself??). But about 100 pages half way through the book veers off into nothing but Straight Edge world. I didn't want to know that much about this stuff, and quite frankly, it isn't that interesting. It was too much. I want to know about the characters, particularly Eliza, with whom she would tantalizingly tease the reader with a glimpse here and there, looking into Eliza's thoughts and then quickly backing away and disconnecting from that part of the story. I don't want to spoil the plot for anyone by telling you why this would be so fascinating, but I just thought this would have best served the main movers of the plot: Teddy, Jude, Johnny and Eliza, NOT the Straight Edge story. She also managed to touch briefly on topics like fetal alcohol syndrome, the growing acceptance of homosexuals in NYC, HIV/AIDS and methamphetamine and cocaine use, all part of the burgeoning culture of the 1980's. But while the book comes to a roaring close, the last third of the book previous to the crashing end is draggy and slow, mired down in the details of life in a Straight Edge band full of youngsters who should be home in high school.
This isn't a terrible book, I liked the writing, and it will appeal to some folks who can possibly relate to some of the activities of the characters. But for me, the story itself just left me cold. I grew up in this era, on LI, outside of NYC. I knew people, kids and adults alike that used drugs, mainly pot and cocaine. I knew people who were criminals. But in this novel, the line between criminal and user blurs. All the adults are pretty reprehensible, no one is responsible and none of the "kids" have any ambition at all. No one gets called on their horrible behavior either. Ever. They all seem to get away with it. There seemed to be no redemption for anyone, and I'm not going to comment on the final pages of the book, as I do not want this review to be a spoiler for anyone who may be reading the book and enjoying it. But I found the end pretty unsatisfying as well.
This story, about a group of doper friends (I'm forced to use the term friends loosely) who seem to be driven only by the next bag of weed, fumble through their teen years to what used to be in an earlier age, adulthood. Here, the term doesn't seem to apply as it might to earlier ages, in which coming of age meant, you know, putting away childish things for adult reasons.
Jude, who is Henderson's main character, forsakes dope and other chemical entertainments for membership in a group called straight edge. In another era, the children of James Dean or Marlon Brando would have taken up tobacco and booze and fast cars and motorcycles as their way of pushing off against their parents and any other authority figures who might've irritated the fragilely developed personalities of teen-hood. But these kids are the progeny of indulgent parents, some dopers themselves. So where else to go but straight? An interesting premise, really.
Along the way - and I won't delve into Henderson's overstuffed cast - Jude gains a slowly fructifying case of the hots for Eliza, maven of cocaine, who turns up pregnant. She's adamant about hanging onto Johnny, you see, who must've knocked her up. But she finally tires of her jones for Johnny and opts -assumedly in any-port-in-a-storm fashion, for Jude. There. I've ruined the story for you, haven't I?
What has me so acerbic about this book? Disappointment, more than anything else. There is, I suppose, a form of coming of age for both Jude and Eliza, but it's more a case of growing fatigued by the dope-and-sex-and-rock scene. One has to assume that biology kicks in for them here, not hard decisions made from maturing emotions and intellect. There's no real growing up odyssey, as Henderson has spelled it out for the reader, just a final scene in which the couple exit stage left with babe in arms, somewhat anxious to flee New York's ugliness.
First novels these days, whether lauded to max as this one is destined to be, or quietly simmering as the author gathers an audience, seem to be an apprenticeship that in the long-lost days of the publishing industry was spent in the counsel of agent and editor, and perhaps writing group. I'm not implying Henderson has no talent; to the contrary, she has a way with words, although sometimes her tautly carved phrases seem to be working too hard at their job.
My problem here is the same as with many young writers with talent - they have the writerly chops, but their views of life are as if through a keyhole, i.e., with the myopia of teen age and lack of a life experience that would allow them to see, and write, their microcosmic stories and characters within the grander scheme of things.
As a result, the characters here seem such doofuses that the author has to occasionally come to their rescue with a bit of explanatory narrative. Hopefully, the second novel will show the maturity Henderson's talent deserves.