Straight Edge, Winding Story: Ten Thousand Saints 

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Ten Thousand Saints
By Eleanor Henderson
Ecco

First-time novelists often gravitate toward the third-person omniscient. It's tempting: you can go inside everyone's head, and never lack for witty commentary. The problem with free access to all your characters' interiority is that it's hard enough to write in one voice, let alone a dozen, and so Ten Thousand Saints, the promising debut from Eleanor Henderson, paradoxically suffers as it balloons from a tense story of youth in crisis to a kaleidoscopic domestic drama.

The youths in question are Teddy McNicholas and Jude Keffy-Horn, a pair of Vermont wastoids growing up delinquent in 1987: "Teddy was the dark-haired one, Jude the redhead." In ugliness and social standing, Teddy and Jude resemble Beavis and Butt-head, though they're harder to tell apart. However, there's a compelling fervor to their need to get "sky-high, kite-light" on everything from kegs to freon, and the book looks like it's going to become a two-headed Permanent Midnight until Teddy dies (not a spoiler: it's on the jacket copy) and Jude goes to New York and has a straight-edge epiphany.

Here the novel is overtaken by roving narrators, teen and adult, as it dutifully touches on all things late-80s NYC, from AIDS to CBGB. The most interesting character turns out to be Les, Jude's entrepreneurial pot-smoking father, who, at the end of the book, tries "to recall who Teddy was exactly, how he might fit in." The reader does too. Still, Henderson writes powerfully about drugs and the things that take their place. "How strange and pure this high —wanting to hurt someone, and knowing he could," says Jude as he prepares to indulge in some straight-edge violence. When it stays in one head, Ten Thousand Saints is rich and sound.

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