Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints hooked me from the first line: “‘Is it dreamed?’ Jude asked Teddy. ‘Or dreamt?’” Not sure why I liked it so much, and I certainly don’t really care about the answer, but I do want to find out more about someone who would ask that question. I also love the way Henderson describes Teddy as wearing “opalescent, fat-tongued Air Jordans, both toes bandaged with duct tape” and Jude as “the one in Converse high-tops, the stars Magic Markered into pentagrams.” Character and time are established with such vivid, concrete detail, and there’s something endearing about the image of Magic Markered pentagrams and duct taped toes.
It’s no secret that Teddy’s about to die; the very first page situates the story “on the last morning of 1987 and the last morning of Teddy’s life.” By the second page, it probably isn’t much of a mystery either how he dies. Adopted by a pair of diehard hippies, Jude grew up taking drugs like other kids take pop, and the novel begins with Jude and Teddy “celebrating Jude’s sixteenth birthday with the dregs from last night’s bowl.” So when Teddy dies of an overdose, how is a guilt-ridden Jude supposed to cope? He goes to live with his pot-dealing father in New York (he even names his bongs!), and that’s where the story really takes off.
Jude meets Teddy’s half-brother Johnny, who introduces him to straight edge, an underground youth culture that is vehemently against drugs, meat and sex. There’s quite a bit of irony in Jude’s parents shaking their heads and wondering where they’d gone wrong raising a son who now rejects drugs. There’s also quite a bit of wistfulness as Henderson explores the generational gap. Jude’s mother is a sweet, sympathetic character, whose decision at one point to be a part of the gang rather than a mother leads to hurt feelings. I also love how she wonders why her generation’s music about sex and drugs sounded so mellow and peaceful, while her son’s songs about morality and just saying no had to be so angry. Jude’s friend Eliza is such an intriguing character as well — she’s pregnant, and so is forced to grow up quickly (as are Jude and Johnny, who band with her and vow to help support the child), and at the same time, foreshadows a future generational gap that she will face with her own child. Her pregnancy both highlights the urgency of the trio figuring themselves and their lives out, and also expands the story of three teenagers into a bit of a family saga.
There is so much I can say about this book! It’s the kind of story that builds slowly, drawing you in closer and closer as you keep reading, until it ends and I, at least, was left with thinking, “Wow! What an ending.” I love the way Henderson develops her characters. I didn’t grow up in the 80s, and straight edge culture isn’t something I’m familiar with. But I was definitely drawn in by all these complex characters, who are all dealing in their own way with Teddy’s death and their potential role in it, and trying to figure out who they are and who they want to become. I just made the book sound incredibly cheesy, but it’s not; Henderson’s narration is subtle, humorous and heartfelt.
I love the way Henderson describes things: “he placed his finger under her chin and tilted her head slowly, slowly up until her eyes met his, the way a parent will prepare a child for a reprimand, or the way a man will prepare a woman for a kiss.” Tender, and what a spot-on image parallel! Or: “‘It’s a nice face,’ she said. Nice. It was so much more than nice, but she couldn’t think of a better word. You didn’t call a boy beautiful, not a boy who was your husband’s best friend, not a boy who didn’t like girls and who went around picking fights and who you really did think was beautiful.” Again: spot on, with the last phrase.
Saints goes beyond just wonderful characters and descriptions; it encapsulates an entire era — the reaction against the consequences of hippie lifestyles and the realization that, no matter how cool you may be, your children will always seek to differentiate themselves from you. Saints also deals with homosexuality and the advent of the AIDS crisis. I love the way Henderson reveals that a character is gay: “‘You want to know what it feels like? Bein’ with a girl?’ Rooster dropped his hand. ‘It feels like bein’ a fuckin’ coward.’” Bam.
Henderson’s characters feel very, very real, and so does their story. I don’t know if I’d call it a page-turner, but it does make you live in Jude, Eliza and Johnny’s world. To be honest, after the first page, I didn’t really get into it until Teddy died (which, because I glossed over that bit in the first page and didn’t bother to read the plot summary, came as a complete shock to me). But, like I said, it just kept building, and the ending is just wonderfully wistful. Beautiful, wonderful book. Highly recommended.