Centering her novel in a small town in Vermont, Henderson focuses on friends Jude Keffy-Horn and his best-friend, Teddy McNicholas, as the boys enter the turmoil and travails of adolescence in the 1980s. Teddy,
born of an Indian father, is the dark-haired one, Jude the redhead. Decidedly brotherly, both boys have an appreciation for "a good old bong" and for sharing new and forgotten methods of getting high.
Chilly Lintonburg, Vermont, in 1987 is not a place of surprises. Jude and Teddy ache to escape. They plan next year to go to New York to start a band and meet Johnny, Teddy’s half brother, perhaps even stay with him until they can find a place of their own. Johnny left Lintonburg when he was only eighteen, but Jude and Teddy's memories of him are mostly obscured by time and by vodka.
While Jude becomes the putative focus in this coming-of-age tale, his blue eyes set wide apart and “weighed down by distrust, THC, and a deep hormonal languor,” Teddy seems to shoulder most of the boys’ aspirations. Tired of cold Vermont, homemade drugs and “farm boy slang,” Teddy is well aware that a sophisticated and vibrant world
lies far beyond the limits of provincial Lintonburg.
On the night of a party, Teddy follows Jude, crossing the line of rebellion with gorgeous Eliza, fresh off the train from Manhattan. With her painted doll face and elfin ears, Eliza possesses knowledge about Les, Jude’s hippy father who still sells pot in New York. Eliza hides her fears behind her own discreet cocaine habit; Teddy and Jude become her champions and guardians, if only for the night, both totally enamored of this flesh-and-blood sister who has come all the way from the City to find them.
Then comes the offer of a free ticket. Eliza thinks Teddy is cute, and she doesn’t stop when he produces no protection. Her existence takes on new meaning when she finds herself pregnant. In New York, Johnny also hides his own true nature. Lost in a maze of a city, Johnny’s memories of Teddy are “disturbingly few and without pattern.” Making a living from giving illegal tattoos, Johnny lives on the edge, joined to those around him by blood and sex, his existence defined by time, place, and his bourgeoning responsibilities for Eliza.
Into a shadowy, borderless colony of tribes and bands, stone-throwing youth vie with jocks, stoners and skinheads. Jude appears, wide-eyed, green, and full of gratitude. Every word that comes out of Johnny’s mouth is a marvel - this savvy, tattooed, new-age punk who “gives straight edge a soft cell.” As the full weight of Eliza’s disarming news slowly descends upon Jude and Johnny, the author places them all within Teddy’s shattered dreams. There’s a sense of duty and a breathless disbelief at their unexpected fortune.
Filling her pages with a brittle dose of reality, Henderson's drama unfolds against the specter of AIDS, the virus glinting “like a silver needle" in the hushed alleys of Johnny’s neighborhood. While marijuana’s deep, peaceful sleep is ever-present, it
is the lower East Side’s march toward gentrification that gives vibrant shape to Jude, Eliza, and Johnny's unbridled passions.