I first picked up Ten Thousand Saints because I thought it was cool that it was written by an Ithaca College writing professor. That is cool, but the book is even cooler. The novel addresses drugs, sex, pregnancy, AIDS, love, loss, grief, death, and family set against and embedded in the 1980s straight edge scene in New York City.
When fifteen-year-old Teddy McNicholas dies of a drug overdose in a small town in Vermont at the end of 1987, teenage rebel Jude Keffy-Horn, Tedd’ys brother Johnny, and new acquaintance Eliza come together in the city to struggle with holding on and moving forward. Johnny introduces Jude to the hardcore straight edge culture, and Jude’s initiation into the vegan, celibate, drug free world is a sharp contrast to his previous life and the people in it. Meanwhile, all three characters’ lives are changed when Eliza discovers that she is pregnant.
Jude. Johnny. Eliza. Teddy. Les. Rooster. I was absolutely fascinated by every character in this novel, from the protagonists down to those who only had minor roles in a few scenes. Each one had a strong voice and motivations, and the interactions between the characters were honest and powerful. I was especially drawn to Johnny, the tattoo artist and musician who served as Jude’s guide into the scene with simultaneously coping with his own losses and secrets. I was somewhat worried that Eliza would be playing the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl when she first showed up, brash and beautiful from the big city, ready to change the lives of our heroes, but over the course of the novel I really warmed to her. She had the vulnerability you would expect of someone her age in her situation, but an independence and strong willed personality that let her hold her own against parents, love interests, and her own fears. There are no heroes and no villains (except for maybe death and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic) in this story; each character’s flaws are on full display, but at their hearts they believe they are doing the best they can.
Henderson’s voice is as strong in her setting as it is in her characters. I know very little about the 80s punk, hardcore, or straight edge scenes in New York City. However, I imagine that the atmosphere of the time was full of the same intensity that electrifies this novel. Every page is bursting with description and emotion, so much that sometimes I felt like I didn’t know where to look or what to think. Occasionally this was overwhelming; even more occasionally it seemed unnecessary. But for the most part I was engrossed by this portrayal of a subculture rife with passionate ideals and equally passionate characters. I was fascinated by the politics and the religion, the sexual and sometimes homoerotic undertones of the culture, and the way that the people in it connect and break apart. All of this is relayed with vivid and intense description.
The novel’s “weak” point is in the plot itself, which is sometimes meandering, sometimes jagged, and mostly unresolved. At the same time, I put “weak” in quotation marks because this lack of a single focus or closed ending is fitting with the tone of the book and the characters in it. The novel captures a moment in time, and the characters go on beyond it, profoundly changed by their experiences but not stagnated within them. A more focused conclusion would artificially end their stories, when the realism of the novel dictates that they should go on. Overall, Ten Thousand Saints is a novel full of authentic characters and rich in its description of an intense, emotional era.