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.