High school kids Jude and Teddy spend their time in their small Vermont town hanging out, stealing and getting high. On New Year's Eve 1987, the pair pass out in the snow after a night of drugs, drink and parties. Teddy never wakes up.
Shortly before his death Teddy lost his virginity to Eliza, who was visiting for the night from New York, where her mother is dating Jude's father. Eliza also gave Teddy cocaine, which may have been the key ingredient in the mixture of substances that killed him. All of this happens in the opening of Henderson's novel, which deals with the fall-out from Teddy's death.
Jude travels to New York to tell Teddy's brother, Johnny, the news. He moves in with his estranged father and gradually becomes involved in the 'straight edge' punk scene, which rejects stimulants of any kind. Meanwhile Johnny, who is exploring Buddhism, decides that the right thing to do would be to marry Eliza and raise his brother's child.
It is this chaotic situation that Henderson gradually brings to order. The punks form a kind of family, their own families having disintegrated at the hands of their hippy parents. Jude's father deals drugs and his mother makes a living blowing glass bongs. Johnny's mother skipped town shortly before Teddy's death, fearing that her lies about Teddy's father's identity were about to be exposed. Nobody in the book seems grown up but at least the children have an excuse.
Without parental guidance, all kinds of values take their place. Buddhism, straight edge punk ideals and the camaraderie of life in a touring band are all explored as potential codes for living. In the end, the kids will grow into their identities, regardless of what they choose.
Henderson has an eye for detail and creates an authentic mid-1980s New York that is grubby and crime ridden but also filled with an unusual sense of community. A key scene in the novel takes place at the Tompkins Square Park riot in August 1988, in which heavy-handed policing turned a rally into a battle.
She's equally able to draw the contrast between New York and sleepy Lintonberg, Vermont. The characters shuttle between the two - usually from one of Jude's parents to the other - seeking to escape one and find refuge in the other. The city represents hope for excitement but also danger; the small town means boredom but sometimes safety. Conversely, the city means anonymity, while the small town can be a place where mistakes are hard to live down.
These aren't pleasant characters - at least I didn't find them that way - and that can make this book a difficult read. Like real people, the cast of this book are rough-edged and can be inconsistent, selfish, confused and irrational. Spending a lot of time inside their heads can be an uncomfortable experience.
That's not a criticism. If anything, it's to Henderson's credit that she has resisted sentiment and stuck to the story. Ten Thousand Saints is a very good novel but not necessarily an enjoyable one.