In Eleanor Henderson’s proudly unsentimental debut novel, a teenager who ODs on New Year’s Eve unknowingly pulls together the friends and family he left behind. Ten Thousand Saints threatens to get cluttered at times, but Henderson reins in her sprawling cast with a series of contrasts and a neighborhood as a supporting player.
Best friends Jude and Teddy love to get high together in their backwoods hometown of Lintonburg, Vermont, dreaming of when they’ll be old enough to legally drop out of high school. When paramedics find them in the snow on New Year’s Eve after another epic night of going party to party, Teddy is dead—possibly as a result of the coke shared with him that night by Jude’s father’s girlfriend’s daughter, Eliza, stranded in Vermont after a skiing vacation—and Jude wakes up in the hospital without his best friend. When he decides to travel to New York City to deliver the news to Teddy’s brother Johnny, a tattoo artist and the lead singer in a hardcore band, Jude is sucked into a world of straight-edge rock shows and East Village squatters. Then he reunites with Eliza, who’s carrying Teddy’s child.
Ten Thousand Saints balances an often chaotic load of characters, including Jude and Teddy’s bewildered parents, shuttling them back and forth between rural Vermont and Avenue C; most of them are teenagers still trying on new identities, which compounds the difficulty of this feat. Henderson zeroes in on the essentially malleable nature of these teenagers without squashing them into an indistinguishable mass; instead, they each strive to emulate Johnny in their own ways. The shifting lineup complements the twin poles between which Jude and his friends and bandmates are thrown: Sometimes the big city holds the promise of temptation, and sometimes it offers a chance to wipe the slate clean.
In the absence of Teddy, whose appearance in the book is as brief and unremarkable as his memory is lasting, the character of the East Village in the age of AIDS and squatters’ rights develops as organically as the others, infusing Jude’s search for forgiveness with an awareness of the wider world. Rather than letting the time hang the plot, Henderson parcels out its history in tantalizing images and snatches of conversations, holding back where her protagonists might themselves miss the significance of their surroundings. Eventually, Ten Thousand Saints lifts Jude and his friends from myopia to compassion, but so subtly, it’s hard to notice a difference.