Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Ten Thousand Saints" by Eleanor Henderson

A good and quick way of describing "Ten Thousand Saints," would be to call it a bohemian consort to Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom."

The Berglunds, Franzen's vehicle for sifting and weighing distinct facets of contemporary American life are troubled and wacky (like all of us). But they have college degrees, own a sweet house, and (on and off) hold jobs that exceed the value of their pedigrees.

They are quintessentials (made-up word) woven from the American myth, strivers on a mad lurch upward, their familial idiosyncrasies pushing and pulling.

The parents in Eleanor Henderson's novel, by way of contrast, are pot-smokers/dealers, glass bong-blowers or long-departed.

Two of the kids in the cast, Teddy and Jude, engage in youthful tomfoolery such as snorting industrial compounds, and well, stuff so inane that Henderson's acknowledgements inform her son that he can "do anything but don't ever do any of the stupid things in this book."

Teddy dies (not a spoiler but forecast in the book's opening sentence) while they are inhaling something out of an air conditioner duct in the freezing Vermont night.

Before he did that though, Teddy had sex with Jude's step-sister, Eliza, and impregnated her.

The loss of a beloved friend and brother spurs Jude, and Teddy's senior sibling Johnny, to form a protective cloister around Eliza and nurture her to delivery.

That's your story. It moves from Vermont to New York, where Johnny and Eliza already live anyway, and situates them in the "straight edge" movement clustering throughout Alphabet City, Manhattan, in the late 1980s.

A plan is cooked-up whereby Johnny claims paternity and marries Eliza as a legal and tender way of keeping parents, grandparents and state agencies from assuming their traditional roles in the lives of confused teen-aged moms.

They form a band, The Green Mountain Boys. After running afoul of some local toughs back in Vermont, a van tour is launched, second rate venues played, and junk food imbibed on the open American road.

Sex, spirits and narcotics, are eschewed because that's the "straight edge" credo, perhaps at the story's expense.

There is something monkish about the trio that makes them not very much fun to follow, despite their admirable do-it-yourself musicianship and earnest efforts at hacking a unique path for themselves through the complex new world of maturity.

They take a shot at the open road, another American myth; The one that says somewhere in all that vastness, there is a place better than where I'm at.

"It was ten o'clock in the morning, and it was summer, and these were the best years of their lives, and they were crossing George Washington Bridge, the Hudson a spangled blue ribbon laced through it.

"On the boom box that served as car stereo was the new album by Side By Side, with whom they had just performed; behind Jude were one thousand copies of their own seven-inch record, which had just been pressed in Haworth, New Jersey, and released on Green Mountain Recordings, the label Delph had produced out of thin air."

Here, that myth is either false or a thing of the past.

The kids can't seem to escape their parents, bouncing between them, renewing entanglements. Yes they've made the big jump to The Big Town, but Les, Jude's pot-smoking dad is there, along with Eliza's overweening mom, Di.

"Ten Thousand Saints" is very nicely written by a woman with all the academic bona fides of today's top publishing recruit, but readers may split on whether the talent might have been lavished on something other than a brief bohemian idyll in Manhattan of some less-than-inspiring youths.

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