By Rachel Luban
Given the title of Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson’s entertaining and readable debut novel, and the fact that its protagonist is named for Saint Jude, you might reasonably conclude that the book is about goodness, sainthood, moral transformation. And in some ways it is. Sixteen-year-old Jude begins the book as a drug-addled misfit and Misfits fan in Burlington, Vermont, anagrammed “Lintonburg” in the novel’s only departure from verisimilitude. The year is 1988, and Jude spends his days listening to punk and hardcore and pursuing truly creative methods of intoxication with his best friend, Teddy. A night of debauchery leaves Teddy both dead from an overdose and the father of an unborn child, two occurrences that set the rest of the book’s events in motion. The transformations begin: under the influence of Teddy’s half-brother, Johnny, Jude joins the budding straight-edge movement, spurning drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and the sex he wasn’t having anyway; the cokehead mother of Teddy’s child, Eliza, quits her drug of choice and devotes herself, for the rest of the book, to being pregnant.
Jude, Johnny, and Eliza, then, become the saints of the title. They move back and forth between Lintonburg and the New York straight-edge scene, playing house when they’re not playing shows, preparing for the baby they plan to raise and encountering such late-’80s New York hallmarks as underground tattoos, AIDS, and tent city wars. The problem with the title theme, however, is that most of its moral tension hinges on doing or eschewing drugs. Teddy’s overdose and adopted Jude’s fetal alcohol syndrome set the stakes high—but even so, I just don’t find teenage drug habits morally meaningful enough to make or break canonization.
Ten Thousand Saints is really about orphanhood, not sainthood. Everyone has an absent parent or two: fathers are missing, dead, or estranged; mothers abandon their children in literal and figurative ways. Even the present, caring parents exercise no control over their kids, who run more or less rampant. And so the book is less hagiography than Peter Pan, a band of orphans fighting their own way through a land of make-believe. “Is it dreamed?” Jude asks on the first page. “Or dreamt?” This opening line and the parallel-universe “Lintonburg” hint that this world might be more Neverland than New York.
But improbable and fantastical are different, and Saints, unlike Peter Pan, falls squarely in the former category. The novel’s default mode is still realism; there’s plenty of historical detail to make 1988 convincingly our 1988. Because her writing never approaches surrealism or fable, the unrealistic elements of the story tend to feel instead like young adult fiction. (Johnny and Eliza have a teenage Hare Krishna wedding. Everyone quits doing drugs with apparent ease.) The characters variously reflect that they resemble “an afterschool special” or “a new age family sitcom,” observations that seem self-consciously inserted to forestall similar judgments by the reader. The young-adult mood comes not from being about young adults but from being so thoroughly “on the kids’ team,” as Jude’s mother thinks about herself. The adults are all a little buffoonish—and certainly further from sainthood than their children are.
I wondered throughout the book how these improbable elements could be resolved. Henderson’s skillful and occasionally beautiful writing (“fat-tongued, opalescent Air Jordans”) goes a ways in mitigating the gimmicks, but good prose can’t wrap up a story. Happily, the end did redeem them in some measure. The orphans give up their dream of raising the baby in a teenage punk-rock family; the children return to their parents. As Henderson says, “now the make-believe had come to an end,” and her Wendy, a pregnancy later, is restored to her bed. When the dream ended and morning came, Ten Thousand Saints finally earned my trust. But isn’t that a little late?