I was about a third of the way through Ten Thousand Saints when I discovered that it is just about to be released as a movie starring Ethan Hawke and Hailee Steinfeld. This makes sense. This coming-of-age tale of teenage friendship, dysfunctional families and the ‘straight edge’ hardcore scene of New York in the ‘80s has cinematic scope and is packed to bursting with juicy themes– AIDS, homosexuality, teen pregnancy, absent parents, foetal alcohol syndrome, adoption, drugs, rock and roll and even a road trip. However, it was this melting pot of ideas and issues that kept me from liking the book more than I thought I would.
Teddy and Jude are 16 year old best friends, growing up in the small town of Lintonburg, Vermont. They spend most of their time avoiding their mostly absent parents, smoking pot and sniffing glue, drinking and listening to music.
The book opens on the morning of the last day of 1987, Jude’s 16th birthday and the last day of Teddy’s life. The following 50 pages chronicle a single day and night, a night that will have an effect on the lives of the main characters for the rest of their lives. This opening segment is beautifully written, a meandering and lyrical depiction of teenage life and the strong emotions that come with it. It is both heartfelt and clear-eyed about the emptiness of these boys’ lives and their attempts to find meaning in friendship and drugs – drugs which will claim Teddy’s life and leave his friends clambering for meaning and for hope.
The rest of the book traces the effect of Teddy’s death on a group of intertwined characters. Jude falls into a depression and is sent to New York to live with his feckless father Les, who abandoned the family seven years previously. In the city, Jude hooks up with Teddy’s half brother Johnny, a musician and straight-edge Hare Krishna who is dealing with his own identity crisis. Together they start a band and also attempt to form a would-be family with Les’s step-daughter Eliza, who has fallen pregnant with Teddy’s baby, conceived on the night he died. If this sounds a little confusing, well, it is. That may well be the point, as Henderson examines the chaos of the families of the former hippies and love children of the ‘60s. All varieties of parent and child are included, the adopted, the step children, the missing and the never known. Eliza’s mother Di, maybe the most rounded adult in the book muses,
All these abandoned children, she was thinking. Jude, and poor Teddy, and she guessed Johnny and Eliza, too, and Prudence…all left by one parent or both, in one way or another.
The traditional family is non-existent in the lives of these kids, so in some ways they attempt to create their own. Henderson may not judge the lack-lustre parenting of these open-minded, drug-taking parents, but she clearly points out how far they have gone astray and the damage they have unwittingly caused. She also lucidly portrays that moment of adolescence when you have left your family behind and create a new sense of family with your friends.
The back drop of the book, the straight edge New York scene of the ‘80s where punk-loving kids renounced drink, drugs, red-meat and sex is a perfect back drop to this tale of the kids trying to do right where their parents have done wrong, to the point that it is almost a character in its own right and Henderson does well to examine how such a rigorous and controlled way of life could be attractive to teens who have never had any rules to follow or anything to aspire to.
However, despite the strong opening, the rest of the book feels as muddled as the family relationships it depicts. Too many characters are jostling for space and too many plot strands are competing for attention. As the tale travels back and forth and back and forth again from New York to Vermont, I wished for a tighter focus and a clearer narrative structure. By including so many issues from the time, the plot becomes muddy and over-cooked, as if it is striving to be an authentic portrayal of the adolescence in the 1980s by not leaving any possibility out. It is bursting at the seams and all these societal touchstones have less of an immersive effect and feel more like they are keeping the reader at arm’s length.
It’s a shame that the book gets so tangled up in itself, as Henderson shows real skill in examining the inner contradiction at the heart of teenage life, with their need to be within some kind of traditional family unit – be it with parents, with friends or within a movement like Hare Krishna or straight-edge – and yet at the same time create their own identity through rebellion and anarchy.
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