A stand-out in cautionary tales
There's a little part of me that will always regret being born too late (and, frankly, too nerdy) to have enjoyed punk culture in the early 1980s. However, books like Eleanor Henderson's Ten Thousand Saints provide me with a perfect venue for living vicariously through someone else's experience, fictional though it may be.
In this remarkable first novel, teenagers Jude Keffy-Horn and Teddy McNicholas are trying desperately to find a way out of the small town in Vermont that they've grown up in. Though the smartest way to do this may be through hard work and careful planning, they've chosen a path with more immediate results, experimenting with any and every drug they can get their hands on as a way to escape their mundane suburban reality. When Jude's estranged father sends his girlfriend's daughter to visit from New York City, Jude's parents hope that small town life will have a calming effect on the beautiful but troubled Eliza, but the opposite happens. Teddy ends up dead of an overdose, and Eliza ends up pregnant.
This tragic turn of events propells the story and its survivors, Jude and Eliza, to New York, where Jude becomes close with Teddy's older brother Johnny, who Teddy idolized. Johnny is a member of a rising punk band and dedicated to the straight edge lifestyle, eschewing any physical "polluntants" like drugs, alcohol, sex, or meat. As Jude dives into this new lifestyle, his pothead father and his mother, a glassblower who specializes in pipes, find his new beliefs a bit hard to take. What results is a refreshingly original coming of age story, with Jude, Eliza, and Johnny learning to come to terms with their grief and discovering who they are in Teddy's absence.
Henderson taps into the excess of adolescent emotion in a way that is painfully real, yet doesn't take itself too seriously. While I can't attest to the accuracy of Henderson's depiction of New York in the 80s, hers is a delightful setting for this story. And the glimpse into the straight-edge counter-culture, which is rarely found in conjunction with a story of grief and music, also makes this book stand out from all the cautionary tales of drugs and punk rock that I've read.