Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TEN THOUSAND SAINTS by Eleanor Henderson from the ARC (forthcoming June 2011 from Ecco) 383 pages

Remember how Jennifer Egan's A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD set book lovers abuzz in 2010? Well, get ready for Eleanor Henderson's TEN THOUSAND SAINTS to shake you up and leave you breathless in 2011.

It's the end of 1987 and full-time friends, frequent stoners and all-time slackers Teddy McNicholas and Jude Keffy-Horn are celebrating Jude's 16th birthday beneath the stadium seats of the football field in small-town Vermont, sharing "the dregs of last night's bowl" that they had stolen from the glove box of Teddy's mom's car. Although they only have $140 saved between them, the boys hope to "save some more money and when they were both old enough to drop out (Teddy would be sixteen in May), they were going to buy bus tickets to the Port Authority and stay with Johnny [Teddy's eighteen-year-old half brother] until they could find a place of their own."

Enter Eliza, the daughter of Jude's absentee father Les's Upper Westside girlfriend Diane. Eliza is on her way back to Manhattan from a holiday ski-cation with friends and she stops in Vermont ostensibly to meet Jude and his sister Prudence face to face. A party girl herself, Eliza not only gets Teddy high on cocaine, but also encourages him to have sex with her. And, it's the consequences of that decision that turn everybody's world upside down in a cascade of "what ifs" and drive the plot forward for the next three hundred pages.

Teddy's fatal overdose is not a secret-- you know from the opening page of his death--however, what happens as a result leads to the heart of the novel where there are secrets kept and told by all of the main players, secrets about paternity, true love, AIDS and abortion. Yet, being young, they continue to dream. Eliza imagines "Annabel Lee" growing inside her, Jude believes he can really form a good punk band that will get gigs, Johnny's determined to remain "straight edge" and do the right thing to honour his brother's memory, and Rooster hopes that he will live to see another day with his true love by his side.

There is not a misplaced thought or gesture in TEN THOUSAND SAINTS. With impeccable pacing and enviable prose, Eleanor Henderson has written a lasting portrait of two generations struggling to understand each other in the modern age. I believed every word.

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