Have you ever read a book at the wrong time? You were busy or stressed or something else was going on that completely affected the way you experienced a story that you know for a fact you would have otherwise enjoyed. When I picked up Eleanor Henderson’s TEN THOUSAND SAINTS, a coming-of-age novel set in 1980s New York, I must have been overworked or underfed or, you know, temporarily insane, because for some reason, I put it down.
Well, we’re all human, and we’re all allowed to be wrong. And I was.
Which is why I tried again.
TEN THOUSAND SAINTS centers around Jude, a young teenager living in Vermont and dealing with the death of his friend, who leaves the Green Mountain State to stay with his father in the Big Apple. There he stumbles upon the underground scene, befriending Johnny, the front man for a straight-edge punk band (they actively exclude drugs from “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”), and falling in love with their new friend, Eliza. As they are forced to face their own dreams and demons, the world begins to change around them, culminating in the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot.
If you grew up obsessed with the musical Rent or yearn for the days when the East Village was called Alphabet City and the presence of taco joints and cocktail bars was an unfathomable concept, this novel is for you. (For the record, I’m the latter; I wasn’t born for the former, but wish I had been.) It’s a time capsule, perfectly preserving the spirit of resistance, rage, and grunge of the 1980s, just before the onset of the AIDS and financial crises that would later define it.
Looking back, I really can’t figure out why my first read of this novel wasn’t like the second. One thing that I never questioned, however, was its quality. It’s beautifully written, just on a line-by-line basis, perfectly blending pop and poetry, humor and honesty. It’s the kind of writing that makes you eagerly await whatever the author has coming next. (When Henderson’s new book, THE TWELVE MILE STRAIGHT, was announced, the release date went RIGHT into my calendar—and happily, it’s out this month). Case in point: “The sky was like a deep blue sheet unfurled above him, like the sheet his mother would put on his bed, letting it hang in the air for a moment before it dropped.”
Like all good nostalgia novels, TEN THOUSAND SAINTS is a love letter to a bygone time, and makes even a reader who never experienced it in the first place ache to be a part of it. I could picture the graffiti, the zines, the people on the streets, the city in all its grimy glory. It made me want to go squat in a disgusting, rat-infested apartment on Avenue C against my panicked suburban mother’s wishes and never leave. (Okay, maybe not. But the idea of it was great.) And yet, it still managed to address the flaws: the crime, the sadness, the heartbreak, and the inevitable chaos that set upon the neighborhood once word of a strange illness spread around.
More than anything, though, this book is about being young and not knowing what the hell you’re doing or dealing with when life throws random curveballs your way. Jude, Johnny, and Eliza are not perfect characters. They make mistakes, are naive, and don’t necessarily get their happy endings. In short, they’re kids, driven by impulse and passion for music, life, and one another.
Reading the book a second time, I was forced to confront the embarrassing reality that I’d inadvertently been in a reading rut, looking for protagonists who made me feel better about things instead of making me look at them as they are: confusing and imperfect. And if that’s not the best case for second chances, I don’t know what is.