Countless children of the 1960s rebelled against their straitlaced parents by turning to rock music, sexual freedom and, perhaps most importantly, drugs. But would such an uninhibited cohort curb the rebellion in their own children, a generation later? In her vibrant debut, a sweeping coming-of-age novel set against the pulsing New York City punk scene of the late 1980s, Eleanor Henderson asks this and much more, bringing to life both a set of achingly real characters and the unique time in which they lived in Ten Thousand Saints.
For Jude Keffy-Horn, adopted at birth by Vermont hippies who later divorced, boredom and drugs are the mainstays of his small-town life. But things take a drastic turn on his 16th birthday, when his best friend, Teddy, dies of an accidental overdose. In desperation, his mother sends Jude to live with his pot-dealing father in the East Village, taking a gamble that it might straighten him out. Oddly, the plot works, as Jude eschews his father’s alternative lifestyle for one of his own—the hardcore, straight-edge punk scene. As Jude weans himself off the vices of his childhood (not just drugs, but also alcohol and even meat), he builds an unconventional but tight-knit family around two friends—Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, a tattoo artist in a hardcore band, and Eliza, a scared prep-school dropout likely carrying Teddy’s baby.
Henderson’s debut is ambitious, and though she has clearly researched extensively, the prose sometimes struggles under the weight of so much detail. But the novel shines when she focus on the characters, whom she writes about with care and affection, digging below rough exteriors to find the source of their anger, frustration, boredom and indifference. From this gritty, often under-the-radar subculture, Henderson culls warmth and humanity, and proves herself at the same time a deft and promising storyteller.