Friday, July 29, 2011

Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints": Book Review

This novel's advance copy comes filled with breathless "in-house praise" and a back cover full of promotional strategies across media. This energetic campaign may reflect the edgy mood of the setting, the straight-edge hardcore punk scene of 1988. The novel nears its end during the Tompkins Square Park anti-gentrification riot in Mayor Koch's Manhattan. Its immersion in the streets and back alleys of New York City attests to the confidence that Eleanor Henderson brings to her debut novel. Over four-hundred pages, it follows the convoluted year in the relationships between teenager Jude Keffy-Horn and his father's girlfriend's daughter, and the complications that she, Eliza, escalates once she finds herself in an all-too familiar female predicament.

The story shuttles between small-city Lintonburg (~Burlington), Vermont, and NYC's Alphabet City. I did not find either locale as intricately evoked as I'd expected, although the places gain sufficient elaboration. Neither did I find Henderson's prose, an indirect narration that subtly filters the characters' perspectives (if sometimes too subtly, as the tone often blurs as the controlling narrator tends to dominate), as particularly quotable or dazzling. Her tone stays modest, generally cleansed of ego.

Its teenaged and young adult characters assert individuality against a system that has co-opted its idealistic elders. Still, they too shave their heads, get "X" tattoos on their hands, and shut out or beat down those who don't conform to their non-conforming credo, tunes, and tribal rituals. This moral novel's more traditional than its sordid or exotic settings may make it seem.

The author's aiming here to instead focus on characterization of a half-dozen or so late-hippie-era pot-addled parents who found themselves deserted by and deserting their children. Some of them, as here, grow up to embrace, if for a time, the austerity of a celibate, vegan, and Hare Krishna-core punk ethos as an alternative. These straight-edge seekers  value loyalty, purity, and idealism. The trouble solved by eschewing stimulants leads to its own dangers, kids being kids. Revenge and payback prove natural temptations for young people seeking to join up "true 'til death".

Henderson charts the tensions between youthful ambitions and profane temptations, and the gang-like element that coheres around the Green Mountain Boys which Jude sings with for me was a clever theme to explore. This was the reason I chose to read this book, but as it went along, the sounds themselves and the squalor of the spartan lifestyle lived in vans and on tour albeit told well recedes as the difficulty of keeping one's self upright and honest becomes the larger message.

As with the Hindu elements that initially color the ideology that attracts the straight-edge recruits, the hardcore scene recedes often as the backdrop rather than the primary theme. While Jude becomes the singer of his own band, you rarely witness him on stage. However, the rigors of an ascetic life on the road and in the van gain gritty detail, gleaned from Henderson's research into the 1980s rock underground scene.

The novel hones in on family ties unraveling, attenuating, and reconnecting as exes reunite and bicker and spar. These settled or unsettled parents contend to keep their offspring apart or estranged from their current partners--potential or actual surrogate parents--as well as the progenitors' former partners. Henderson follows every combination and permutation of such couplings and sunderings. While this leads to a somewhat schematic playing out of every possibility as to who will or will not take in the wandering children, this activity does allow her to keep the plot convoluted enough to propel it over so many pages, and overall, she manages to keep the character-rich story sustained.

Without revealing the consequences of such hard-won truths learned by adoptees, strays, divorcees, and stepfamilies, suffice to say that Henderson's earnest exploration of hippies and punks moves along smartly. The climactic scenes set around Alphabet City and Tompkins Square felt rather hurried, but this may reflect the characters' own weariness with fighting the system as the yuppies move in, the straight-edge scene stagnates, and AIDS infiltrates this puritanical counterculture.

I found the novel at times intriguing for an aspect that some readers may find challenging. Henderson prefers to delay exposition of certain plot pivots until a few pages after one character begins to divulge the twist. She is to be commended for this daring, but this may put off as many readers as it may win over. However, the book's largely free of the MFA-style of showy prose and self-aggrandizing displays of irony or sentiment that many of her peers attempt to sell as fiction these days. At the heart of this sprawling tale is an elaboration of counter-cultural but still persistent, however tattooed, stoned, and amplified, family values, defiantly rallied in the last year of Reagan's rule.

(Featured at Pop Matters 7-28-11; posted in shorter and earlier form to Amazon US 7-3-11)

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