It could be said that Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel Ten Thousand Saints is about ten thousand different things—addiction, adoption, family, hedonism, asceticism, AIDS, poverty, and homelessness—to name a few. A brief synopsis cannot really describe the sensory-overload of this tightly-packed 400 page novel. The title, Ten Thousand Saints, comes from the Book of Jude: “Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all.” This mysterious inscription, printed at the beginning of the book, is a strange, yet fitting, way to begin what is ultimately a wonderfully strange and sublime novel.
Ten Thousand Saints opens underneath the stands in a football stadium on New Year’s Eve, 1987. Jude—named for the Beatles song or the saint; it’s a point of contention between his parents—and his best friend Teddy are getting high and thinking about their next high. This day will be the last day on earth for Teddy, who will die of an overdose in the early hours of New Year’s Day. For Jude, losing his best friend leaves him alone in a world in which he’s already marginalized. The adopted child of divorced parents, Jude is dyslexic, drug-addled, and depressed. After Teddy’s overdose, Jude is also diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. Looking at the photographs of children with FAS in informational brochures, Jude sees his own face reflected back to him for the first time. He is angry and despondent.
Jude leaves his mother’s home in Vermont for his father’s place in New York, where he encounters Teddy’s brother, Johnny. Johnny is a straight edge—no drinking, no drugs, no meat, no sex—musician and tattoo artist. Jude falls hard for Johnny’s apparent confidence and purpose, and the straight edge culture becomes addiction-prone Jude’s new obsession. In the middle of all this is Eliza, Les’ step-daughter who is pregnant from a one-time fling with Teddy. She holds all the sadness and all the hope of this novel in Teddy’s unborn child. In a misguided attempt to honor his brother, Johnny marries Eliza and together with Jude, they attempt to set up house. It’s a house of cards, of course, which the reader knows from the beginning, but wants to hope for some redemption, anyway.
The New York years of the book take us through punk shows, riots, demonstrations, and the beginning of AIDS. The setting feels pre-apocalyptic or pre-adulthood—however you choose to look at it. Ultimately, the book isn’t about drugs, or music, or religion—although all of those are ways that characters experience belonging. It is about finding home. At the last show at CBGB, an adult Jude reflects: “There are ten thousand Johnnys and ten thousand Judes, throwing themselves against one another to see what they can start” (384). The saints are all of us, and the only prayer that makes sense in life is “thank you.” In a beautiful passage, Harriet tells Jude: “When they brought you to me, ten days old, I couldn’t believe you were finally mine. I was so grateful. You were like a little bundle that had just fallen from the heavens. And I thought, Jude. In Hebrew, it means ‘Praise.’ Or, ‘Thanks’” (372). Ten Thousand Saints certainly left me with a sense of gratitude for all the chaos and beauty that is life.