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Ten Thousand Saints
by Eleanor Henderson
Ecco/HarperCollins

All In The (Fucked Up) Family
by Ken Honeywell

We don’t see much of the two characters most responsible for driving the narrative of Ten Thousand Saints. The first is Teddy McNicholas, a 15-year-old freon-huffing kid whom we learn in the book’s first sentence is living his last night on Earth; the second is Teddy’s unborn child, whom we never meet. But their lives animate virtually every page of Eleanor Henderson’s impressive debut novel about identity and responsibility, family and the lack thereof.

Teddy and the child are saddle-burrs for a trio of protagonists: Teddy’s older brother Johnny, who’s left Vermont to immerse himself in the East Village’s inchoate late-1980s straight-edge music scene; Eliza, the privileged young Manhattanite who’s carrying Teddy’s baby; and Teddy’s best friend and huffing partner Jude. Parents are either absent or not paying attention, and the teens’ best strategy for dealing with their lack of direction and their guilt–each feels responsible for Teddy’s death–is creating their own little family in the form of a touring rock band.

Henderson handles the story deftly. The no-meat no-drugs no-sex straight-edge subculture is revelation most readers, and to Jude, who’s never before left Vermont. “Outside the window, a bird flickered in a tree branch. A bird in New York. All his life Jude had seen the same birds, and this one–he’d never seen it before.” We’re mesmerized by the strangeness, too–and by Henderson’s effortless narrative voice that dips in and out of the consciousnesses of another half-dozen characters, as well, often shifting viewpoints within a scene without feeling jarring. That’s a trick.

Not everything works. Jude’s transformation from burned-out kid to charismatic straight-edge rock band frontman is a mite rapid, and the ending feels forced and unearned, as if Henderson were as tired of the road trip as the band. But Ten Thousand Saints is a great read and a great addition to the canon of rock and roll novels.

As If That Were Progress
by Traci Cumbay

One messed-up teenaged boy is the beating heart of this novel about growing up at any age, only that boy’s heart stops beating in the first chapter.

(Relax. You know from the novel’s first page that it’s going to happen.)

The people whose lives were part of his carom off each other for almost 400 pages, sometimes at high, self-destructive velocity and sometimes languidly, as if they have no more might for fighting the flow.

The choices that at first let you unclench your jaw – just a little – turn into outcomes that make you want to kick something. And vice versa.

Nobody knows what they’re doing. Not the teenagers or their mothers. Not the Buddhist or the glassmaker or the upper-middle-class attorney. Certainly not the private investigator hired to track down the girl who’s carrying the dead boy’s baby.

They’re all grasping, grabbing, slipping. What they want changes from page to page, not because author Eleanor Henderson isn’t smart about her storytelling but because her characters are foundering at crisis points too big for them.

They’re all trying to do something different, as if that equals progress, while they deal with Teddy’s death, their own bad moves, and the ineptitude of the people they depend on.

If you like resolution, you might be reassured to know that this book has it, across the board. But that’s a jarring wrap-up to a book that seemed to insist on chaos and indecision as defining characteristics of living.

Getting there was the pleasure, and a deep one. Even when characters missed wisdom by a mile, they really were trying their damnedest. And Henderson keeps a slow, lovely pace. Her writing is as calm and clear-eyed as her characters aren’t.

 

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