In 'Saints,' A Straight-Edge Coming Of Age
Ten Thousand Saints
By Eleanor Henderson
Hardcover, 400 pages
List Price: $26.99
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On Aug. 6, 1988, a collection of squatters, anarchists and youths took over Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan's East Village to protest a new 1 a.m. curfew. By the time the fated hour rolled around, the gathering had turned violent as police attempted to shut down the park. The crowd was there to protect a neighborhood where, as Eleanor Henderson puts it in Ten Thousand Saints, "there were shadows to hide in. Here you didn't advertise being gay or straight or rich or poor; you just tried not to get your ass kicked." Injuries and reports of police brutality abounded.
Henderson picked this era of uneasy change for her sad, funny debut novel about growing up. Ten Thousand Saints opens with the death of 15-year-old Teddy on New Year's Eve 1987, and then follows as the tragedy unhinges the lives of three teenagers: his best friend, Jude, his brother Johnny and his one-night-stand, Eliza.
The novel uses as its backdrop the devastating AIDS crisis, the creeping gentrification of New York City and the straight-edge movement, which, in direct reaction to the excesses of the then-thriving punk scene, advocated for a drug-free, vegetarian lifestyle. Henderson lets these now historic events simmer, giving them little more existential weight than her bored, self-important teenagers would. Indeed, it's Eliza's pregnancy, which the three hold secret for many months, that becomes their purpose and talisman. "They spoke of it with giddiness and gravity, or with panic, or with a sense of duty, but always with breathless disbelief at their unexpected fortune," Henderson writes. Yes, the three appear at the Aug. 6 riot — but only one of them is there to protest, the other two to argue over the future of Eliza's baby.
It's heartbreaking to watch this trio clumsily make their way in New York. Each grew up missing one or both parents and, perhaps inevitably, find it easier to blame themselves for their own struggles and sorrows: Johnny for his mother's abandonment, Jude for his friend Teddy's death. It's fitting that the adults in Ten Thousand Saints hover, mostly uselessly, around the edges of the novel, feeling less present, in many cases, than the departed Teddy.
Henderson, who received her MFA in fiction from University of Virginia and now teaches at Ithaca College, captures the fraught, incomplete stories that teenagers manufacture about their lives. After meeting his estranged dad, Johnny feels a false rush of assurance, "like a son, as though he had a mother and a father, parents who were screwed up in a legendary, acceptable way." (Perhaps it's this fantasy of domesticity that stirs Johnny to, for all the wrong reasons, marry Eliza.) And in the absence of a coherent family, music provides the illusion of one for Jude, who becomes a guitarist in a straight-edge band, taking to the road on tour because "bands weren't just bands. They were troops. They were tribes."
Henderson's novel reminds us of how blunt teenagers are, and, by extension, how honest. She has a perfect ear for conversation between siblings — the way a lazy spat can turn into a grudging moment of closeness. And the euphoria of the straight-edge movement that Jude and Johnny embrace suffuses the novel with a reckless, glib joy. (See their roadie's essay, "How I Spend My Summer Vacation".) At times, Ten Thousand Saints feels overplotted, as if the author had let her cast of love-and-drug-besotted misfits take the reins. But that haphazardness paired with the sometime painful teenage rites of passage, adds up to a bittersweet, lovely book.
Ten Thousand Saints
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Excerpt: 'Ten Thousand Saints'
Ten Thousand Saints
By Eleanor Henderson
Hardcover, 400 pages
List Price: $26.99
"Is it dreamed?" Jude asked Teddy. "Or dreamt?"
Beneath the stadium seats of the football field, on the last morning of 1987 and the last morning of Teddy's life, the two boys lay side by side, a pair of snow angels bundled in thrift-store parkas. If you were to spy them from above, between the slats of the bleachers — or smoking behind the school gym, or sliding their skateboards down the stone wall by the lake — you might confuse one for the other. But Teddy was the dark-haired one, Jude the redhead. Teddy wore opalescent, fat-tongued Air Jordans, both toes bandaged with duct tape, and dangling from a cord around his neck, a New York City subway token, like a golden quarter. Jude was the one in Converse high-tops, the stars magic-markered into pentagrams, and he wore his red hair in a devil lock — short in the back and long in the front, in a fin that sliced between his eyes to his chin. Unless you'd heard of the Misfits, not the Marilyn Monroe movie but the horror-rock/glam-punk band, and if you were living in Lintonburg, Vermont, in 1987, you probably hadn't, you'd never seen anything like it.
"Either," said Teddy.
They were celebrating Jude's sixteenth birthday with the dregs of last night's bowl. Jude leaned over and tapped the crushed soda can against Teddy's elbow, and Teddy sat up to take his turn. His eyes were glassy, and a maple leaf, brittle and threadbare from its months spent under the snow, clung to his hair. Since Jude had known him Teddy had worn an immense pair of bronze frames with lenses as thick as window panes and, for good measure, a second bar across the top. But last week Teddy had spent all his savings on a pair of contact lenses, and now Jude thought he looked mole-eyed and bare-faced, exposed, as Jude's father had the time he'd made the mistake of shaving his beard.
With one hand Teddy balanced the bud on the indentation of the can, over the perforations Jude had made with a paper clip, lit it with the other, and like a player of some barnyard instrument, he put his lips to the mouth of the can and inhaled. Across his face, across the shadowed expanse of snow-stubbled grass, bars of sunlight brightened and then paled. "It's done," he announced, and tossed the can aside.
Bodies had begun to fill the grandstand above, galoshes and duck boots filing cautiously down the rows, families of anoraks eclipsing the meager sun. Jude could hear the patter of their voices, the faraway din of a sound system testing, testing, the players cleating through the grass, praying away the snow. Standing on his wobbly legs, Jude examined their cave. They were fenced in on all sides — the seats overhead, the football field in front, a concrete wall behind them. Above the wall, however, was a person-sized perimeter of open space, through which Teddy and Jude had climbed not long before, first launching their skateboards in ahead of them, then scaling the scaffolding on the outside, then tumbling over the wall, cat-like, ten feet into the dirt. They'd done it twenty times before, but never while people were in the stadium — they'd managed to abstain from their town's tepid faith in its Division III college football team; they abstained from all things football, and all things college. They hadn't expected there to be a game on New Year's Eve.
Now Jude paced under the seats and stopped five or six rows from the front. Above him, hanging from the edge of one of the theater-style seats, was a pair of blue-jeaned legs. A girl. Jude could see the dirty heels of her tennis shoes, but not much else. He reached up, the frozen fingers through his fingerless gloves inches away from her foot, but instead of enclosing them around the delicate bones of her ankle, he lifted the yellow umbrella at her feet. He slid it without a sound across the concrete and down into his arms.
"What are you doing?" whispered Teddy, suddenly at Jude's elbow. "Why are we stealing an umbrella?"
Jude sprung it open and looked it over. "It's not the umbrella we're stealing," he whispered back, closing it. Walking into the shadows a few rows back, he held it over his head, curved handle up, like a hook. In the bleachers above, there were purses between feet, saving seats, unguarded, alone, and inside, wallets fat with cash. Teddy and Jude had no money and no pot and, since this morning, nothing to smoke it out of but an empty can of Orange Slice.
Last night they'd shared a jug of Carlo Rossi and the pot they'd found in the glove box of Teddy's mom's car, while they listened to Metallica's first album, Kill 'em All, which skipped, and to Teddy's mom, Queen Bea, who had her own stash of booze, getting sick in the bathroom, retch, flush, retch, flush. Around midnight, they'd taken what was left of the pot and skated to Jude's to get some sleep, but in their daze, had left Jude's bong behind. When they returned to Teddy's in the morning (this was the rhythm of their days, three rights and a left to Teddy's, a right and three lefts to Jude's), the bong — the color-changing Pyrex bong Jude's mother had only given Jude that morning as an early birthday gift — was gone. So were Queen Bea's clothes, her car, her toothbrush, her sheets. Jude and Teddy wandered the house, flipping switches. The lights didn't work; nothing hummed or blinked. The house was frozen with an unnatural stillness. Jude, shivering, found a candle and lit it. When Teddy opened the liquor cabinet, it was also empty — this was the final, irrefutable clue — except for a bottle of Liquid-Plumr and a film of dust, in which Teddy wrote with a finger, fuck.
Beatrice McNicholas had run away a few times before. She'd go out for a six-pack and come home a week later, with a new haircut and old promises. (She was no nester or nurturer; she was Queen Bea for her royal size.) But she'd never taken her liquor with her, or anything of Teddy and Jude's.
The boys had stolen enough from her over the years to call it even. Five-dollar bills, maybe tens, that Queen Bea would be too drunk to miss in the morning, liquor, cigarettes. She was the kind of unsystematic drunk whose hiding places changed routinely but remained routinely unimaginative — ten minutes of hunting through closets and drawers (she cleaned other people's houses, but her own was a sty) could almost always turn up something. Pot was more difficult to find at Jude's house — his mom's hippie habits were somewhat reformed, and though she condoned Jude's experimentation (an appreciation for a good bong was just about all Harriet and Jude had in common), occasional flashes of parental guilt drove her to hide her contraband in snug and impenetrable places that recalled Russian nesting dolls. In Harriet's studio, Jude had once found a Ziploc of pot inside a bag of Ricola cough drops inside a jumbo box of tampons inside a toolbox. While Queen Bea seemed only mildly aware that teenagers lived in her midst, sweeping them off her porch like stray cats, Harriet had a sharp eye, a peripheral third lens in her bifocals that was always ready to probe the threat of fast-fingered boys. So Jude and Teddy stole what was around: a roll of quarters from her dresser, the box of chocolates Jude's sister Prudence had given her for Mother's Day. They took more pleasure in what they stole out in the world: magazines and beer from Shop Smart (Shop Fart), video game cartridges from Sears (Queers), and cassettes from the Record Room, where Kram O'Connor and Clarence Delph worked. And half the items in Jude's possession — clothes, records, homework — were stolen, without discretion, from Teddy.
But this bold-faced thievery beneath the bleachers embarrassed Teddy. It was so obvious, so doomed to failure. Sometimes Teddy thought that was the prize Jude wanted — not the money or the beer or the cigarettes but the confrontation, the pleasure of testing the limits. Jude was standing on his tiptoes, umbrella still raised like a torch, eying the spilled contents of a lady's bag. His tongue, molluscous and veined with blue, was wedged in concentration in the cleft under his nose.
"Hey," said someone.
Teddy tried to stand very still.
A pair of eyes, upside-down, was framed between the seats above them. It took Teddy a few seconds to grasp their orientation — the girl was leaning over, her head draped over the ledge. "What are you doing?" she said.
Jude smiled up at her. "You dropped your umbrella."
"No, I didn't." She had her hands cupped around her eyes now, staring down into the dark. No one else seemed to notice.
"It fell," Jude insisted, hoisting the umbrella up to the girl, his arm outstretched, letting it tickle one of her fingers.
"Just give it back," said Teddy. It was the way Jude always made him feel — tangled up in some stupid, trivial danger. Teddy closed his eyes. He didn't have time to mess around; his mother was gone. He needed money, more money than Jude could pick-pocket with an umbrella. His body clenched with his last memory of her — the acrid, scotchy stink of her vomit through the bathroom door; the blathering hiccups of her sobs. Had she been crying because she was leaving, or just because she was wasted?
Then the umbrella, the pointy part, speared him in the gut.
"Ow, man." Teddy opened his eyes.
"You were supposed to catch it," said Jude.
Teddy looked up into the bleachers. The girl was gone. But a moment later, a pair of blue-jeaned legs appeared over the wall behind them.
They watched as the girl jumped from the ledge, her jacket parachuting as she plummeted. She landed feet first and fell forward to catch her balance, then strutted a slow-motion, runway strut in their direction. She stopped a car-length away and stood with her hands on her hips, inspecting them. Her eyes were shining with disdain.
If you were a girl, Jude Keffy-Horn was a person you looked at, hard, and then didn't look at again. His blue eyes, set wide apart, watched the world from under hooded lids, weighed down by distrust, THC, and a deep, hormonal languor. A passing stranger would not have guessed them to be the eyes of a hyperactive teenager with attention-deficit disorder, but his mouth, which rarely rested, betrayed him. He was thin in the lip, fairly broad in the forehead, tall and flat in the space between mouth and upturned nose, the whole plane of his face scattered with freckles usurped daily by a lavender brand of acne. He wore not one but two retainers. He wasn't tall, but he was built like a tall person, with skinny arms and legs and big knees and elbows that knocked around when he walked. He wasn't bad-looking. He was good-looking enough. He was the kid whose name you knew only because the teacher kept calling it. Jude. Jude. Mr. Keffy-Horn, is that a cigarette you're rolling?
Teddy shared Jude's uniform, his half-swallowed smirk, but due to the blood of his Indian father (Queen Bea was purebred white trash), his hair was the blue-black of comic book villains, his complexion as dark and smooth as a brown egg shell. By the population of Ira Allen High School he was rumored half-heartedly to be Jewish, Arab, Mexican, Greek, and most often, simply "Spanish." When Jude had asked, Teddy had told him "Indian," then quipped, nearly indiscernibly, for he was a mumbler, "Gandhi, not Geronimo." With everyone else, though, he preferred to allow his identity to flourish in the shadowed domain of myth. Teddy's eyelashes were long, like the bristles of a paintbrush; through his right eyebrow was an ashen scar from the time he'd spilled off his skateboard at age ten. Then his face had been cherubic; now, at fifteen, it had sloughed off the baby fat and gone angular as a paper airplane. He had a delicate frame; he had an Adam's apple like a brass knuckle; he had things up the sleeve of that too-big coat — a Chinese star, the wire of a Walkman, a cigarette for after class, which he was always more careful than Jude to conceal.
What's that kid up to?
That was the way the girl was looking at both of them now, under the bleachers. "What are you people doing down here?"
Jude stabbed the umbrella into the ground. "Hanging out."
"Are you smoking marijuana?"
"You can't smell it," Jude said. "We're out in the open."
"Can I have my umbrella, please?"
"Why? It's not raining."
"It's supposed to snow, for your information."
"Oh, for my information, okay." Now he was pretending that the umbrella was a gun. He held it cocked at his hip, the metal tip against his cheek, ready to shoot around a corner.
"Jude," Teddy said. "Over here."
He clapped his hands, and Jude obediently, joyfully tossed him the umbrella.
"Motherfucking monkey in the middle!" said Jude.
Teddy walked three paces toward the girl, head down, and returned it to her.
"Thanks," she said.
"Hey," Jude said.
"Brit?" In the bleachers above, two more girls were peering down at them. They never came alone, girls; they always came in packs. "What are you doing?"
"I'll be right there!" A moment later, she was gone.
"Brit the shit," Jude said, but Teddy didn't say anything.
Excerpted from Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. Copyright 2011 by Eleanor Henderson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco.