The Myopia of Author and Character

Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson


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This story, about a group of doper friends (I'm forced to use the term friends loosely) who seem to be driven only by the next bag of weed, fumble through their teen years to what used to be in an earlier age, adulthood. Here, the term doesn't seem to apply as it might to ancient decades, in which coming of age meant, you know, putting away childish things for adult reasons.

Jude, who is Henderson's main character, forsakes dope and other chemical entertainments for membership in a group called straight edge. In another era, the children of James Dean or Marlon Brando would have taken up tobacco and booze and fast cars and motorcycles as their way of pushing off against their parents and any other authority figures who might've irritated the fragile personalities of teen-hood. But these kids are the progeny of indulgent parents, some dopers themselves. So where else to go but straight? An interesting premise, really.

Along the way – and I won't delve into Henderson's overstuffed cast – Jude gains a slowly fructifying case of the hots for Eliza, maven of cocaine, who turns up pregnant. She's adamant about hanging onto Johnny, you see, who must've knocked her up. But she finally tires of her jones for Johnny and opts – assumedly in any-port-in-a-storm fashion – for Jude. There. I've ruined the story for you, haven't I?

What has me so acerbic about this book? Disappointment, more than anything else. There is, I suppose, a form of coming of age for both Jude and Eliza, but it's more a case of growing fatigued by the dope-and-sex-and-rock scene. One has to assume that biology kicks in for them here, not hard decisions made from maturing emotions and intellect. There's no real growing up odyssey, as Henderson has spelled it out for the reader, just a final scene in which the couple exit stage left with baby in arms, somewhat anxious to flee what they perceive as New York's ugliness.

First novels these days, whether lauded to max as this one is destined to be, or quietly simmering as the author gathers an audience, seem to be an apprenticeship that in the long-lost days of the publishing industry was spent in the counsel of agent and editor, and perhaps writing group. I'm not implying Henderson has no talent; to the contrary, she has a way with words, although sometimes her tautly carved phrases seem to be working too hard at their job.

My problem here is the same as with many young writers with talent – they have the writerly chops, but their views of life are as if through a keyhole, i.e., with the myopia of teen age and lack of a life experience that would allow them to see, and write, their microcosmic stories and characters within the grander scheme of things.

As a result, the characters here seem such doofuses that the author has to occasionally come to their rescue with a bit of explanatory narrative. Hopefully, a second novel will show the maturity Henderson's talent deserves.


My rating: 13 of 20 stars





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