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When We Burned: A Review of 'Ten Thousand Saints'

You are: 15, maybe 16, 14 if you’re adventurous. It’s 1988, but it could just as easily be ‘84, or ‘86, hell it could even be ‘76. You are: angry, confused, a little bit misguided, vigorous, possibly high as anything, but perhaps not at all. It’s a rough and uncaring world; you don’t understand it, it doesn’t understand you, and that makes you one displaced adolescent. Enter punk rock, here to save your soul, pierce your skin, and teach you how to dance. Here’s punk rock to give you the life and family you desired when you were trying to escape your own. You had better hurry though—something this potent can often burn out, or worse, sell out. While you can, you best make it count.

There was once a world that embodied this salvation. Located at the corner of hell and municipal apathy, downtown New York City in the late ‘70s spawned the birth of punk rock as we know it. Bands like the Ramones, Television, Blondie, and the New York Dolls emerged from the suburbs and neighborhoods around New York City covered in glitter and syringes, taking rock music in 30 different directions away from the long-form meanderings of Pink Floyd and ELO. This movement centered around clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, where one did not need to prove much in the way of established music recording before taking the stage. The scene quickly spread across the pond, where Margaret Thatcher’s England made for a perfect foil to the antics of the Sex Pistols and the Damned, as well as the knowing commentary of the Clash.

By 1980 the scene had grown stale, as bands either got big, like Blondie, weird (and awesome), like Public Image Limited, or both, like the Talking Heads. However, in the basements and clubs across America, a new movement was growing. It was known as Hardcore, and it was played loud, fast, and raw, generating mosh pits that left its participants bruised and broken boned. This new underground in America was pushing a harder, more intense product, hardcore in both message and tone. Bands like the Dead Kennedys sang of holidays in Cambodia, as well as being too intoxicated to party the way the young so love to do. Black Flag took their fight to the police while setting the tunings on their guitars to new depths. What united fans of bands like these was a shared willingness to harm themselves and each other, all in the name of brotherhood and personal authenticity, the calling cards of this scene. Enter Ian Mackaye and Minor Threat, the first straight edge band, so called after a song on the one album they released. A punk band so set on rebellion, they rebelled against their ostensible fan base, decrying drug use, alcohol, and promiscuity. This straight edge scene was defined by its ferocity, both in the pit and the street, as these principles were defended by throat and fist, to any and all naysayers. In a movement defined by brotherhood, they were the closest of kin.

This is the world of Ten Thousand Saints, a novel that takes a good look at the ‘80s hardcore and straight edge scene in downtown New York City, before so many American Apparels and NYU undergrads laid siege to the lands south of Union Square. The author, Eleanor Henderson, conjures here a lost world, populated by all manner of lost souls. Her characters don’t just exist, they seem to bleed off the page. The novel starts with two high school punks, Teddy and Jude, as they encounter the miseries and indignities that result from living in a town stuck in the ‘60s. Jude’s mother sells bongs for a living, and Teddy’s has just left town, leaving some money in lieu of explanation. It’s New Years Eve 1986, and the New Year doesn’t look to bring anything but more of the same for this broken duo. By 12:01, however, a new girl has entered their lives, and by 5 AM, Teddy is dead. His death, and the consequences of what happened before it set the novel in motion, as the girl returns back to her home in New York City, and Jude soon follows. Though Teddy appears for only the first few chapters, he escapes being a mere plot device, as his and Jude’s conversations and exchanges are imbued with a confrontational yet sensitive mien, Salinger by way of Sick of it All. So even as the novel progresses far beyond Teddy’s death, he looms large in the minds of both character and reader.

Jude arrives in New York City, but this is not the city of Times Square and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. This is the city where men fear to tread south of Houston, and the filth in St. Marks place isn’t affected. The famous kings and queens of Punk have left downtown, but the yuppies and K-Marts have yet to arrive, so the rule of law is left to junkies, dealers, and the other outcasts from the rest of New York City, if not the world. Gay men are still dying from a disease no one knows much about, while straight edge kids bash into each other in small clubs, and no one knows much except that this corner of the city is theirs, to live in as they please. This was their broken paradise, and the author brings it to all its blessedly damned life.

In this vein, soon upon his arrival, Jude gets mugged, and meets the people who will constitute his new life, much as it always seems to happen for those new to New York City, though perhaps not in that order. Given what essentially amounts to free reign by his pot-dealing father, who himself sought refuge there ten years earlier, Jude soon runs into Eliza, the girl present at his best friend’s death, and Johnny, his best friend’s older brother.

Through Johnny, Jude soon becomes immersed in the straight edge scene in New York City, then the fulcrum of the movement. His first encounter starts in a mosh pit and ends with his engaging in ecstatic self-immolation. Before long, Jude is etching X’s into his hands and proselytizing the hardcore gospel. He becomes a true believer, in a religion organized around aural chaos and personal authenticity, if not purity. He is saved, one black and blue mark at a time. All the while Johnny and Eliza encroach ever deeper into his life and each others, till the very point of no return. They respond to this the only way they know how: running for the van. Together, they go on a journey that takes them up and down the east coast, and weaves back through the lives of their parents and friends in New York City as well as back in Vermont.

These characters live like the music they play and revere, slamming back and forth in love and agony, tension and slow release. They all age in the hardest way possible, emerging out of adolescence into the grip of new life and slow death. The city slips away from them as they mature; indeed, by the end of the novel the unseen and menacing forces of gentrification can be felt on the horizon. Henderson pulls off the trick of writing both a eulogy and birth announcement at the same time, for both man and age (era). By the end of the novel the maturity of the characters feels earned, because we feel the bruises they got acquiring it. There can be no greater praise for a story of youth and punk rock.