Plenty of sex, drugs and dysfunction in two fine debut novels

Book reviews: 'Ten Thousand Saints,' by Eleanor Henderson. Ecco, $26.99. 'The Devil All the Time,' by Donald Ray Pollock. Doubleday, $26.95


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First novels are singular creations, the product of the energies and optimism that writing a novel for the first time can inspire. Frequently, their successors seem paler and more labored.

This pair of debut novels brims with that energy and the fresh imagination of a maiden voyage. Even though they are set in two very different times and places, both are driven by the extreme emotions that are the fabric of every family.

And I use the word in the loosest sense of family, specifically Eleanor Henderson's cast of kids and adults in "Ten Thousand Saints" struggling to find an anchor in the drugs and rock 'n' roll culture of 1980s New York.

High school friends and serious addicts, Teddy and Jude are products of various liaisons of their unmoored, aimless parents, vestiges of the "hippie" boom of a previous decade, and being reared after a fashion in a Vermont town.

New Year's Eve 1987, Teddy and 15-year-old Eliza have sex in a bathroom during a party. In the aftermath, Teddy dies of an overdose and Eliza is left pregnant. The rest of the novel revolves around this death-and-life dynamic as Ms. Henderson weaves together the lives of the young and old throughout the course of Eliza's pregnancy.

A family of sorts rallies around the expectant mother from Teddy's half-brother Johnny, a New York tattoo artist and rocker, to Harriet, Jude's adoptive mother, a Vermont-based artist whose most popular creation is a glass bong. Even Eliza's mother makes an appearance.

The novel moves between Vermont and the New York hard-rock scene centered at CBGB, the legendary music club in the Bowery where Jude and Johnny hang out. The memory of Teddy hangs over the patched-together family, an omnipresent warning that their lives must change.

There are echoes of "A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan and "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann heard in this novel, taking away some of the novelty of Ms. Henderson's unusual milieu and time period.

Yet, she knows it well, re-creating with sharp detail the look, sounds and feel of that subculture. Her story is a timeless one of heartbreak and salvation told in precise language, period vernacular and consistent rhythm that make this long novel unfold swiftly.

The book's epigraph -- "Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all" -- would lead us to expect retribution for these less-than-saintly characters, but the novelist is perhaps too fond of them to execute judgment.

Along with a subplot about the incipient AIDS epidemic, this soft edge to the novel ultimately deflates its impassioned tone

If contemporary novelists Ms. Egan and Mr. McCann could be referenced in "Ten Thousand Saints," the cynical, heartless voice of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" provides the background for Donald Ray Pollock's first novel, "The Devil All the Time."

Mr. Pollock emerged from obscurity as a worker in an Ohio paper mill with his short story collection, "Knockemstiff," in 2008. His longer fiction picks up on the bleakness and poverty of his native Southeastern Ohio found in the stories to imagine a world far removed from the Norman Rockwell images of rural America.

This is Thompson land, with lots of James Cain and Cormac McCarthy as well, but Mr. Pollock adds a 21st-century flavor of sexual perversion, casual obscenities and graphic violence.

Hanging over this bloody world is plenty of old-time religion, but "Christian values" have no impact on the behavior of his characters. The Devil is clearly in charge in the shabby towns, fetid apartments and unwashed inhabitants of Mr. Pollock's world.

Family life also figures in the horrific plot launched by the death and suicide of little Arvin Russell's parents in the late 1940s. The boy's throat was raw from shouting prayers demanded by his deranged father to save his dying mother. Dad also hung dead animals from crucifixes and sacrificed a loathsome attorney in the vain effort.

Somehow, Arvin makes it to adulthood relatively intact, but Mr. Pollock doesn't stop there. He gives us Carl and Sally who troll the country preying on male hitchhikers to torture and kill as Carl takes keepsake snapshots for his private pleasure.

Then there are Roy, a traveling preacher who eats bugs, and his crippled sidekick, Theodore, who intentionally poisoned himself in a futile effort to prove that God would save him.

Actually, "The Devil All The Time" is full of humor, though based largely on the ignorance, stupidity and lust of his characters, especially the Rev. Teagardin who tirelessly seduces underage girls.

Clearly, these elements cannot possibly lead to an uplifting conclusion, but that's not Mr. Pollock's intention. He succeeds quite well in delivering the exact opposite.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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