Until I picked up Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, I had never heard the term “straight-edge,” much less anything about a movement of it. At first, I thought the world Henderson created was 100% fiction. I could not have been more wrong.
This is understandable, as I was born at the tail-end of all the action and, to add salt to the wound, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. The grunge scene ruled my town; no other movement had a chance until the new millennium. New York City was a cool destination, a gritty, glowing place of fast-paced professionals filling sidewalks and subway cars. It was the antithesis of and my fantasy escape from the laidback West Coast lifestyle radiating north from California. Now, living in Ithaca as an older and possibly wiser individual, I can’t help but feel that the draw and appeal of the New York City written in this book is Henderson’s reconstruction of my own naïve fantasy.
Since devouring her book (I haven’t finished a book that quickly since the last Harry Potter release), I feel as if I had been right there alongside Jude, her main protagonist, only I’m occupying the movement’s outer fringes and not living inside it. Though the characters are fictional, Henderson draws from a very real, historic period of American history. She spent the better half of a decade researching straight-edge and New York City in the mid-1980’s, before drawing from her college experiences in Burlington, VT, to stage as a secondary location and place for basing the early actions of her teenage protagonists. Her narrative is vivid, absorbing, and – at the best of times – delightfully detailed and honest. Much to my delight, Henderson claims the novel developed when she was living in NYC, as she sat on the subway commuting from one job to the next.
Ten Thousand Saints centers on the lives of two teens, Teddy and Jude. They try to rebel against their parents but, since their parents are mostly ill-quipped to raise teenagers, their rebellion swings to the extreme: smoking pot, huffing, skateboarding around town, stealing merchandise. But everything changes, as plot insists. In a matter of hours on New Years’ Eve while Jude’s stepsister Eliza is visiting, the boys make the smallest of decisions which result in the largest of possible outcomes. Jude is forced to leave his mother’s home and live with his pot-dealing father in New York City while his mother worries and cleans up the mess he left behind. Eliza attempts to refocus on school but eventually decides to share her secret with the only three men who will care: Jude, Teddy’s older brother Johnny, and her stepfather. All of the teenagers in this novel feign maturity and Henderson teaches them a sore lesson.
But this isn’t your average depiction of a group of teenagers being forced to grow up too fast. Never slowing down, the pace of the novel moves as quickly along as the hardcore and punk music Jude and his new straight-edge friend’s play. They dive into the scene, moshing at straight-edge shows, pledging purity, and tattooing thick black X’s on the back of their hands. It’s easy for the reader to see that in a measly 10 years these kids will have forgotten the lyrics to all those straight-edge songs, abandoned their purity vows, and hidden their tattoos under long shirt sleeves. Henderson wants us to know it, too. It’s how she narrates the story, omniscient and observing but rarely critiquing; she has her opinions but she does not live in the straight-edge world. Equipping the reader with multiple perspectives – from Jude to his glass bong blowing mother, Harriet, from Eliza to Johnny and his straight-edge savior Rooster – Henderson creates a rich world for her characters to inhabit. The characters are relatable. Their motivations and emotions are rationalized. Only reader and author see the picture clearly; the characters see a dim, opaque reflection, left to haphazard guesses for one another concerning the way things were and are and will be.
Last week at Buffalo Street Books, Henderson spoke about her experience writing the novel to a small group of fans. Though she cites her husband as the primary resource for material on the psyche of a teenage straight-edge male, Henderson spent much of her time on research before testing her writing out in her graduate program’s writing group. The first draft, Henderson said, was mostly abandoned after receiving numerous rejections from literary agents. One agent (her current) was cited as particularly influential. His advice incited Henderson to start anew and rework the novel, using just the tiniest of morsels from the aborted draft. She wanted to portray the movement as a specific, short-lived period history that was very contextually based. Although the novel began by following a single perspective – my guess is Jude’s, though Henderson never names the male youth – it became necessary for several perspectives to maintain a distance and reflect an honesty only realized through silent observation. For Henderson, straight-edge is a movement in New York City in the mid-1980s within a core group of hardcore and punk music fans. Though the novel dips into some of the political and social movements surfacing in and around St. Mark’s at the time – AIDS, homelessness, gentrification, among others – these moments serve to contextualize the action rather than suggest a political stance.
As an associate professor in Ithaca College’s writing department, it is clear Henderson has plenty to teach students on writing historical fiction and is well-equipped to do so. Her first novel has been praised by critics at the New York Times as well as hand-sold by indie bookstores across the country. Her next project, another piece of historical fiction set in the 1930’s in the South, I hope is similarly honest, engrossing and (above all) well-written.